Bulletproof backpacks, homeschool: With no new gun laws, parents make changes of their own

Bulletproof backpacks, homeschool: With no new gun laws, parents make changes of their own
Allison Dinner

The massacre at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, has led to a shift in parenting as mass shootings persist in places once assumed to be safe, and federal action to prevent future attacks stalls.

The Uvalde tragedy, which left 19 students and two teachers dead, happened in the same month as shootings at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, a hair salon in Dallas and a church in Laguna Woods, California.

More mass shootings, including one at a hospital in Tulsa, Oklahoma, have occurred since, yet hopes for passing new gun measures are dim, even after Congress heard harrowing testimony from a young Uvalde survivor who told lawmakers, “I don’t want it to happen again.”

The alarming nature and the frequency of the shootings have led some parents to feel as though the onus is on them to make changes to protect their children in the absence of a guarantee that their state or federal government will take immediate steps to prevent gun violence.

“To just send my child to school day after day and just cross my fingers day after day?” said Tracy L.M. Norton, who lives in East Islip, New York. “That’s no way to live.”

Tracy L.M. Norton, right, with her daughter, Elizabeth. (Tracy L.M. Norton)
Tracy L.M. Norton, right, with her daughter, Elizabeth. (Tracy L.M. Norton)

Norton is among parents making changes that include switching to homeschooling, buying bulletproof backpacks and checking if there are guns in homes where their kids might be playing with friends.

She has always been a proponent of public schools. But after the shooting at the Buffalo supermarket that left 10 dead and then the Uvalde massacre, she and her husband decided that as of this fall, their 8-year-old, Elizabeth, will be homeschooled.

“We really felt backed into a corner,” Norton said, as if “there really is no safe place to have our daughter in public spaces for extended periods of time.”

“If the federal government gets serious about gun control, if there’s a significant effort to buy back the number of guns that are out there, then I think public school may be in play again for us,” she added.

A move toward homeschooling

Norton is not alone.

In Ogden, Utah, Brittney Lee Fox withdrew her sons, Dominic, 10, and Jayden, 8, from school the day after the Uvalde shooting to start homeschooling them. She plans to attend school board meetings to try to get more safety precautions in local public school buildings, but she is not optimistic it will happen any time soon.

Brittney Lee Fox's sons from left Jayden, Damien and Dominic (Brittney Lee Fox)
Brittney Lee Fox's sons from left Jayden, Damien and Dominic (Brittney Lee Fox)

Her sons felt nervous about their safety in school when she talked to them about what happened at Robb Elementary School, she said.

“They feel helpless,” Fox said. “They feel so confused, and no matter how we explain it to any child, they’re not going to understand it, because we don’t even as adults.”

Homeschooling had already skyrocketed during the pandemic, with families across the country turning to it over concerns about unpredictable school closures and the spread of Covid.

Historically, school shootings have led to a bump in inquiries about homeschooling, said Jeremy Newman, deputy director of the Texas Home School Coalition, which provides support and advocacy for homeschooling families in the state.

Uvalde was no exception. The coalition held a convention last week in which it showcased a program specifically for new homeschoolers, “and it was packed to the brim this year,” Newman said.

Safety is often just one of many reasons families pull their kids out of public school, he added. Other concerns include peer pressure, drugs and what’s being taught in the curriculum.

“Most of these parents had four or five things that they were concerned about, and there was just one that pushed them over the edge,” he said.

Surging sales of bulletproof backpacks

Companies that sell bulletproof backpacks, meanwhile, have seen a surge in sales since the Uvalde shooting.

TuffyPacks, which sells bulletproof backpacks, as well as bulletproof inserts for backpacks, has seen a 300 to 500 percent increase in sales, owner Steve Naremore said.

Guard Dog Security has seen an increase in demand for bulletproof backpacks from both customers and from national retailers that carry its products, said Yasir Sheikh, the company’s president and CEO, though he declined to give specifics on sales “out of respect for the families and victims” in Uvalde.

The companies’ products are controversial, both because the assault-style weapons used in some recent school shootings are more powerful than what the backpacks are marketed to withstand, and because the companies have been accused of preying on parents’ fears. Sheikh, who offers other personal defense items such as pepper spray and stun guns, dismisses that charge.

“I would be much happier if we didn’t have to deal with school shootings, and if that meant that bulletproof backpacks didn’t have to exist, I would be happy about that as well,” he said.

Other steps parents can take

While school shootings remain rare, the chances of a child encountering an unlocked firearm in a home are not. One study estimated that 4.6 million children were living in a household with a loaded and unlocked gun.

Marjorie Sanfilippo, a professor of psychology and the executive director of academic excellence at Eckerd College, has researched young children and whether educating them about firearm safety prevents them from touching a gun. Her studies — which involved leaving children with access to a real gun after telling them not to play with it — showed they have an “insatiable curiosity without an appreciation of the potential consequences,” she said.

“My research showed that no amount of education is going to be strong enough to overcome curiosity of a child, especially if they are being goaded on by another child,” Sanfilippo said.

Experts have long recommended that parents ask if there is a gun in a house before sending their children over for a play date, and Uvalde prompted many parents to share tips on how to do so on social media. But the conversation can feel awkward.

If parents feel uncomfortable, focus the discussion on your own child, Sanfilippo suggested.

“Say, ‘I don’t know what my child would do if he found a gun. I think he would be really curious about it, and so we try to make sure that any homes that he goes into, that he can’t access a gun,’” she said. “Then you’re not saying anything bad about the parents.”

As worrying as it is to raise children in an era of mass shootings, try not to transfer your anxiety to them, said Marc Zimmerman, co-director of the Institute for Firearm Injury Prevention at the University of Michigan and co-director of the National Center for School Safety.

It’s important to think about prevention: how educators, parents and children can help to create a supportive school climate so children don’t feel isolated or bullied, he said. Wherever you or your child go, be vigilant and report anything that seems out of the ordinary.

But make sure to continue living your life, he added.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said. “If we’re living an afraid life, that just creates anxiety, and anxiety creates all sorts of other problems.”