‘No one wants to buy a bulletproof backpack for a kid’
The mood in the small factory is upbeat — seamstresses chat at sewing machines, colorful bolts of fabric line a wall. But the country's growing anxiety over mass shootings is palpable at BulletBlocker , a Lowell company that makes bulletproof backpacks, lab coats, and totes, ordinary-looking items intended for a day that turns anything but.
"I'm putting in a lining where the Kevlar panel can go," said Maya Souza as she worked on a men's suit vest on a recent weekday, a custom order from an oil-industry executive worried about being caught in a terrorist attack overseas.
As the number of mass shootings mounts, a fearful public is increasingly trying to protect itself. Gun sales are rising. Companies are holding active-shooter drills.
And on quiet Wilbur Street in Lowell, in a nondescript three-story building, BulletBlocker's vice president, Ed Burke, is taking sales orders from civilians dressing for battle. BulletBlocker says it has seen a roughly 70 percent increase in business since the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris.
"I had a call from a gentleman in North Carolina who's hosting a party outdoors and wants a Kevlar coat he can wear over his tuxedo," Burke said.
Husbands call, he said, eager to protect wives who are going to the mall, "or, at this point, even just to the grocery store."
With the holidays, Burke added, "we get a lot of people asking about ballistic ratings, and what to wear for specific events they're going to."
Some shoppers order from the firm's website, where bulletproof items — certified to withstand specified weapons — include a $125, 3-ring-binder insert panel.
"If you work in the public," the description reads, "you are at greater risk of being involved in a shooting incident [Centers for Disease Control]. 80 square inches of bulletproof clipboard in your hands might change the outcome."
A denim jacket lined with Kevlar costs $750, and "will stop a .357 Magnum, .44 Magnum, 9mm, .45, hollow point ammunition and more," the website says. "This timeless jacket is an American icon with traditional Western styling."
Charles Abreu, a contractor in Lowell, bought a $749 bulletproof shirt to wear when he travels, concealed under his clothes, and ordered a $249 bulletproof backpack for his 9-year-old son, Nicholas.
"I told him if there's any emergency at school you have to hide somewhere and make sure you put your backpack in front of you," Abreu said.
He reflected on the purchase. "No one wants to buy a bulletproof backpack for a kid," he said, "but I want to see my kid grow up and be somebody in life."
For his part, Nicholas was almost blasé. "If someone tries to shoot me," he said cheerfully, "the backpack makes me safe."
According to a New York Times/CBS News poll out Friday, Americans are as fearful of a terrorist attack as at any time since the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001. BulletBlocker is one of a number of companies that sell bulletproof clothing, inserts, and backpacks — and routinely see an uptick in business after mass shootings.
But security consultant Juliette Kayyem says that as a whole, society would be safer with a more comprehensive approach, one that includes active-shooter training and better communication about risk with children.
"Everything would have to be right for a backpack to be effective in an active-shooter case," said Kayyem, a mother of three in Cambridge, a onetime Globe
op-ed columnist, and a former assistant secretary in President Obama's Department of Homeland Security.
Parents who feel the need to send a child to school wearing a bulletproof backpack or nylon jacket — $750 at BulletBlocker — "might consider home schooling," she said. "The data suggests you'd do better talking to your kid about texting and driving."
Perhaps, but when Joe Curran founded the firm in 2007, he was a concerned father of a young son and daughter. He's a former corrections officer with the professional habit of thinking about protection.
"This was after Columbine," he recalled this week. "I was talking to the teacher and the principal [at my kids' school] and asking what their plan was if there was an intruder, and what they told me didn't make me too happy.
"They said they shut the doors and hide the kids among the coats and they wait for the police to show up, and that was it."
He went home, cut panels from bulletproof vests, and sewed them into his children's backpacks. "I told them that if anything bad happens, hold the backpack between yourself and the bad guy."
Word spread about the backpacks, and he started getting requests from friends and family. The firm now employs about 10 people, sells to law enforcement as well as civilians, and is expanding from 4,000 to 7,000 square feet.
In the year following the 2012 attack at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, the company sold about 10,000 bulletproof backpacks — 10 times as many as it had the year prior.
On a recent afternoon, Curran's son, Michael, was working in the office. Now a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, he recalled his fifth-grade classmates' carefree reaction to his novel backpack.
"Everyone was like, 'If something happens, we're hiding behind you,' " he said, smiling at the memory.
In Uxbridge, Rosemary Baker, the owner of a nail salon, is anything but carefree. She's already purchased a bulletproof jacket for her now ex-husband to wear hunting, and is considering buying him a bulletproof compression shirt. "I get worried that he'll get into a situation in the airport," she said.
She's also considering bulletproof clothing for her daughter, a nurse in Hawaii, and her son, a mechanic.
"He's in North Attleboro and I don't think there are a lot of terrorism issues there," she said. "But you never know. We all have illusions that everything is hunky dory, and then some nutcase shows up."