The US would rather regulate backpacks than guns

As school shootings tick upwards, Americans aren't changing gun culture, but backpacks
A student holds their clear backpack in Parkland, Florida.
A student holds their clear backpack in Parkland, Florida.
Photo: Carlos Garcia Rawlins (Reuters)
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It’s a modern-day theater of the grotesque, here, at the bus stop. The characters arrange themselves on grassy footpaths and sun-bleached sidewalks, hair parted, unscuffed shoes chafing. But these protagonists don’t know they’re players. The children simply line up for the school bus hoisting clear backpacks.

The backpacks are clear so they cannot conceal AR-15s like DDM4s, neither revolvers nor rifles, not shotguns nor semi-automatics. They’re clear so they cannot hide calibers of any kind: 5.56, .45, .223, .38. They’re clear so they will deter a hidden handgun, a pilfered pistol, a firearm swiped from the family safe.

The backpacks are clear because school shootings have been rising steadily, swiftly, perhaps staggeringly in recent years. They’re clear because while school shootings are merely one of the ways American children face gun violence, 2022 tallied an all-time high in bullets fired on school grounds. They’re clear because 2023 may mark a new record.

They’re clear because the United States—the nation that arms its educators, the nation that carries out active shooter drills in classrooms, and the nation that puts children through metal detectors before first period—would rather regulate its backpacks than its firearms.

As classroom shootings rise, school districts are responding with a curious safety focus: backpacks. The share of schools requiring schoolbags to be transparent (or outright banning backpacks altogether) remains small: about 4% of public schools in the 2019-2020 school year, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics. But in the last three years, a growing number of districts are testing backpack policies. For one, the Washington Post finds that at least 27 school districts have started restricting backpacks in the last 18 months for fear of gun violence. Others are instituting regular searches for weapons inside. It’s a testament to a consummately American culture, one where legislation maintains that a rifle is an irretrievable right: Rather than tackle its gun laws, the US elects to tackle its schoolbags.

The nation’s school shootings are ticking upwards

In the UK, in China, in Russia, in India, in Australia, across European nations on the whole, the foremost cause of death among children and teens are accidental injuries, primarily from the likes of auto crashes. In the US, it’s firearms.

Among peer nations, the risk doesn’t even come close: In no other large, wealthy country does gun violence rank within the top four causes of child deaths. And the fatalities are merely increasing. Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new study finding that gun-related deaths have reached a record high for American children. The Pew Research Center finds that gun deaths rose 50% for children and teens in just two years from 2019 to 2021.

As for school shootings, the federal government doesn’t track their specifics. But last year, a report from the US Department of Education found that school shootings with casualties reached a record high during the 2020-21 school year, more than in any other year since it began collecting data in the early 2000s. In 2009, the agency tracked 11 shootings; in 2021, the number was 93.

And the instances of gunfire on school grounds have risen dramatically in the past three years, a Washington Post tracker finds. Since January of this year, there have been 27 school shootings on K-12 school property that resulted in injuries or deaths, according to another tracker run by Education Week. Once beyond secondary school, college students aren’t inoculated from campus shootings, either: most recently at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where this week a graduate student allegedly opened fire on campus, putting the university in lockdown for more than three hours (pdf) and killing a faculty member.

In the last decade, more than 41 million Americans—more than an eighth of the US population—lived within a mile of a mass shooting, according to a CNN analysis of data from the Gun Violence Archive and US Census Bureau; compare that to 3.4 million people in 2014. Research from nonprofit Everytown for Gun Safety finds an estimated three million American children are exposed to shootings each year. And school shootings, it writes, are “just the tip of the iceberg” when 30 million live in homes with guns, a known risk factor for injury by firearm.

Schoolbags for shootings

But rather than targeting the guns brought, the US—mainly via public school districts in the absence of larger legislative action—targets the vessels they might be brought within.

Clear backpacks, intended to keep students from discreetly porting potential weapons or drugs onto school grounds, aren’t a new practice. School districts have been instituting mandates for clear schoolbags since at least the 1990s. Today, knapsack makers like JanSport and retailers like Walmart and Target offer mesh bags, too, another common product that schools with bag policies allow.

But when shootings hit headlines, students and activists alike call clear-bag initiatives something else: security theater, or a pat-on-the-back policy that doesn’t meaningfully make schools more safe. Take, for example, the wider adoption of clear-bag protocols in Texas after a shooting in a Uvalde elementary school killed 19 children and two teachers last year. But the shooter who clambered over the fence of Robb Elementary was not a student, and the AR-15 rifle he carried was bigger than any backpack. The clearest of bags wouldn’t have saved any fourth graders.

When clear backpacks were passed out at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida after a school shooting in 2018, students made their dissent just as transparent; they outfitted theirs with protest stickers and badges, saying they were an ineffective intervention in the face of real gun reform. “I think they solve nothing,” sophomore Alyssa Goldfarb told VICE News at the time. “It’s more of a way of the county saying, ‘Hey, we’re doing something.’”

In Dallas, where clear or mesh backpacks became the mandate last fall, school officials concede that they “will not eliminate safety concerns,” calling the rule “one of several steps in the district’s comprehensive plan to better ensure student and staff safety.” But students themselves testify that backpack policies merely make them feel less safe, not more.

Prevention, or protection?

To some market-savvy makers, backpacks don’t just hold potential for violence prevention. They’re also posited as a means of protection.

That’s the case of companies that make bulletproof backpacks—typically knapsacks outfitted with body armor, or removable ballistic shields that can be slid into the typical Jansport or LL Bean bag. Manufacturer Bullet Blocker calls its backpacks a “consumer favorite.” Guard Dog Security arranges its models alongside stun guns and pepper sprays. Bags come in youth editions and junior versions, extra-small selections and schoolbags sized for preschoolers.

When lawmakers can’t be counted on to limit American access to guns, after all, one can’t blame white-knuckled parents for clicking “add to cart.” (No matter, either, if they actually work at protecting anyone.) And when shootings make national headlines, purchases soar.

As the country emerged from a trio of mass shootings in 2019, companies marketing bulletproof backpacks saw their sales surge 300%. “We always see spikes in sales in the days or weeks after shootings,” Steve Naremore, the CEO of TuffyPacks told CNN.

“While we wish that this wasn’t something we as parents needed to think about, recent history reveals that it is very much a threat to our children that we need to take seriously and make every attempt to be proactive about,” Julie McCuen, chief operating officer at Leatherback Gear, told Insider after the shooting in Uvalde prompted another sales spike. “Just as we educate and prepare our children in school for what to do in the event of a fire, we now must do the same for an active shooter.”

If clear backpacks are just security theater, and federal and state governments aren’t willing to ban guns, then there’s always that saying: The only protection against a bad guy with a gun is a good guy wearing a bulletproof backpack.