Robert Schermerhorn was doing well selling an ice scraping tool called Miracle Scraper online when the Parkland shooting happened. But in the outcry after of one of the deadliest school massacres, Schermerhorn saw a business opportunity. He and his partner started selling bulletproof backpack inserts.
"We figured it was a good idea for people who wanted extra security for [their] child because it can save lives," Schermerhorn told BuzzFeed News.
On Feb. 23, just nine days after Parkland, Schermerhorn registered the website domain SaveYourBabies.com. By the following week, his company — first called Angel Armor, now BackPack Armor — was selling $97 bulletproof backpack inserts — and aggressively marketing them on Facebook.
Schermerhorn claims BackPack Armor sold some 3,000 inserts in its first two days of operation; at times the company was spending $15,000 a day on Facebook ads.
"When you’re spending that amount of ad spend you’re going to get a lot of visibility," he said. "[The page is] growing fast because of the amount of reach."
BackPack Armor is one of many peddlers of civilian body armor to pop up in the aftermath of the latest string of school shootings in the United States. And its marketing, like that of its rivals, emphasizes the need to protect children amid the recent violence in schools. Some backpack inserts are selling out.
Due to "the popularity of the BackPack Armor Shield, we may sell out very fast. As of March 12th we do have a limited supply of BackPack Armor Shield's IN STOCK and ready to ship," reads a statement on SaveYourBabies.com.
BackPack Armor claims its bulletproof insert is "level IIIA certified" and "makes every book bag bulletproof." Level IIIA–certified products protect against most handgun threats: .357 SIG FMJ flat nose bullets at a velocity of 1,470 feet per second or less, and 44 magnum semi-jacketed hollow-point bullets at a velocity of 1,430 feet per second or less, according to the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), the Justice Department agency that oversees body armor used by law enforcement.
But BackPack Armor's backpack inserts are not NIJ certified — none are. The agency has never certified such products; it hasn't even tested them. "Marketing that claims NIJ testing or certification for such products is false," it said in a Feb. 28 statement. And level IIIA-certified products do not not protect against assault rifle fire, like the kind unleashed in Parkland. (A previous statement on BackPack Armor's site that said it does not guarantee protection against an AR-15 round has since been removed.)
On SaveYourBabies.com, the company says its inserts are "made to comply" with with NIJ0101.06 Level IIIA rating and backs up another "Fully Tested & Certified" claim by linking to a report from HP White Laboratory, an independent ballistics and ballistics resistance laboratory. The tests, performed on eight different bulletproof panels, were conducted for an undisclosed client in 2012, six years before the launch of BackPack Armor. HP White Laboratory declined to comment on the report to BuzzFeed News citing client privacy.
"Our plan was to donate to the [next] school where there is a shooting, if there is a school shooting .... but hopefully that doesn’t happen."
BackPack Armor's manufacturer, Guatemala-based Multiproductos Internacionales, does produce certified class IIIA armor, according to the NIJ’s compliant product list — but that armor is not a backpack insert. The manufacturer has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Still, Schermerhorn insists his insert is legitimate. "We’re not making any fake claims," he said. "We’re selling a product that can stop a bullet and save a child’s life."
BackPack Armor also says on its site, "10% of proceeds get donated to communities to help victims of school shootings." It has yet to make such a donation. "Our plan was to donate to the [next] school where there is a shooting, if there is a school shooting....but hopefully that doesn’t happen," said Schermerhorn.
Other companies are taking their own approach. Tactical equipment manufacturer ATS Armor, which does not sell to the commercial civilian market, now plans to sell bulletproof inserts for backpacks and briefcases and partner with school supplies companies to insert plates into their products — but the company does not plan to make certification claims.
"We just have to change the dynamics of the messaging a little bit," Brian Beckwith, chief operating officer and cofounder of ATS Armor told BuzzFeed News. "The level of understanding and general knowledge of what protects you out there is very little."
A promotional video posted to BackPack Armor's Facebook page touted the certification against a backdrop of images of ambulances and emergency workers tending to the injured, and a grim message that read, "Time to protect our children from these catastrophes."
The video was removed from Facebook within days of being posted (it continues to be available on YouTube), but not before catching some flak from people who accused the company of exploiting a national tragedy. “Trying to make a profit on the misguided fact that it will save their kids is sickening,” said one commenter.
Facebook prohibits ads that contain deceptive, false, or misleading content, including deceptive claims, offers, or methods and any ads that promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives. The company said BackPark Armor's video claiming class IIIA certification does not violate its policies. "We looked at this specific ad and we could not determine that it was in violation of our policies," said a spokesperson, who later confirmed that BackPack Armor is no longer running ads on the platform.
Schermerhorn is largely unfazed by criticism of his motives or the efficacy of his backpack insert. "What we're trying to do is provide a product that can save people’s lives," he said. "Maybe it won't stop an AR-15 bullet. We’re just trying to help protect people."
As for debuting a bulletproof backpack a week after a national tragedy, Schermerhorn said he's just meeting a consumer need. "Isn’t this supply and demand?"