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Bullet-proof Backpacks and Playground Paranoia Abound in Sandy Hook Fallout

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By Ben Evans-Wild

As should probably have been expected in the wake of the December shootings at Sandy Hook, America's knee is still jerking over a month later, in a variety of depressingly haphazard directions.

One relatively extreme example is the booming trade of the bulletproof backpack, which saw its sales increase tenfold literally on the day of the attack. In fact, it was this very same sales spike which gave one BulletBlocker employee his first inkling of the shooting; it seems some parents' very first response to a hitherto unsuspected threat was to kick-start a kind of playground arms race. The most sinister part is that drilling your child on using the bag seems to be a basic requirement, with the vintage 50s-style duck-and-cover pose apparently enjoying a revival.

What can, at least, be said about the bulletproof backpack is that it's just about possible it could save someone, somewhere, given a hugely unlikely set of circumstances. It's difficult to ascribe the same positivity to a weird cult of fear that some teachers in the US are apparently trying to create around guns; since Sandy Hook, three separate reports have come to light of incredibly harsh responses to children's callous disregard of the prevailing socio-political climate. In all three cases, playing with anything symbolizing a firearm was considered a very big deal.

At various points in January, a Lego gun, a paper gun, and a pointed finger were all treated with hysterical dismay by teaching staff in the US. In one example, which actually pre-dates the Sandy Hook shooting (in August of last year), but is worth mentioning simply for its incredible misguidedness, a deaf boy was asked to change his name - Hunter - because the sign for it looked a bit gun-like.

In all of this seems to lurk the implicit assumption that children who play with guns are diligently training themselves for some kind of future rampage, or, even less convincingly, that they are all vividly hallucinating while they play, and any kind of game involving danger will inevitably give those on the receiving end the haunted stare of Vietnam vets. What, you wonder, is more likely to cause this fear: having your classmate's stubby finger pointed at you, or the sudden and dramatic claim by an authority figure that this is a horrific and dangerous act?

Given that it's pretty much impossible to imagine a modern childhood free of the 'prrrp-prrrp' of inexpert machine gun chatter, and Adam Lanza was, like most school shooters, an isolated and inscrutable child, you might wonder when 'toy guns = real guns' will stop being regarded as a sage piece of wisdom. Lanza's inability to be any kind of part of the society around him was not seen as nearly as much of a problem as hindsight harshly demonstrates it was. In fact, there was a chance, albeit a small one, that the sheer horrifying seriousness of his separation could have been detected; he was assigned a school psychologist, because of fears "he could hurt himself."

What is noticeable about the various chatter involving gun regulation and school safety is that a relatively small proportion is addressing mental health. BulletBlocker's bag, and all its sad implications about American school life, is only a particularly extreme example of the tendency towards only tackling symptoms, like steadily tacking bits onto a teetering structure in the hope that it will eventually reach some kind of gravity-defying equilibrium. Surely that equilibrium could be better reached by going straight to the source of mental health, rather than regarding young killers as an unfortunate occupational hazard.