This Utah company makes bulletproof backpacks and has protective gear for teachers, too

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jarrett Casutt demonstrates a backpack bulletproof vest at Citizen Armor, a company in Provo that makes bulletproof backpacks and other products, on Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

The first bulletproof shield Joshua Christensen bought was for his 14-year-old daughter.

He slid it into the back of the flashy pink backpack that she carries to middle school each day and told her: “Don’t take this out. This is just in case something happens.”

Christensen has long worried that the next school shooting could happen here in Utah. And he grasped for something — anything — that might protect his little girl, Marissa, in case a gunman stormed into her classroom like at Stoneman Douglas. Or Sandy Hook. Or Columbine.

The second shield he bought to tuck into his toddler’s diaper bag.

He was concerned about his 3-year-old baby, Ariah, and his wife, Rebekah, being at the mall or the grocery store or the movies during an attack like what took place in Dayton, Ohio, last week. Or El Paso, Texas. Or Gilroy, Calif.

“It’s just kind of the day and age we live in that that concern exists,” Christensen said. “The shields give me some peace of mind.”

As the school year starts less than a month after those most recent attacks, some parents wonder if when they go shopping for pencils and markers, folders, binders and notebooks, they should also add bulletproof backpacks and shields like Christensen did last year. He dropped them into his cart along with Crayola crayons for Ariah and a backpack for Marissa with a charger port where she could plug in her phone.

Citizen Armor, a Utah business, manufactured the shields Christensen bought for his kids — a product that’s become increasingly popular after each mass shooting.

It’s the only company in the state that makes and markets bullet-resistant products directly for civilians and not police officers. But the technology is the same.

Owner Aaron Gilbert started the shop in 2016 shortly after a gunman opened fire in an Orlando nightclub, killing 49 and injuring 53. Since then, he’s sold thousands of the shields — what he markets as “backpack inserts” — and hundreds of complete backpacks that are bulletproof and include a vest that slides in front of the wearer’s chest. He sells mostly to parents.

“Is this the perfect solution to school shootings? No,” Gilbert said. “It’s just the best I could think of. People need to have a way to protect themselves.”

That’s why Christensen bought two shields. And it’s why Marissa didn’t put up a fight when he asked her to carry one in her bag.

“It makes me feel safer when I’m at school,” the teenager said. “I can use my backpack to protect myself if I have to. I hope I don’t have to."

(Photo courtesy of Joshua Christensen) Pictured are Joshua and Rebekah Christensen's three kids, from left to right: Shelby Williams, 19, Ariah Christensen, 3, and Marissa Bridges, 14.

‘Worth the price’

Lined up on a shelf in his office, Gilbert has a long row of bullets. The smallest is about a half-inch.

“There’s the 9 mm. That’s the least expensive,” Gilbert explained. ”And there’s the .45-caliber. It has more knockdown power.”

The ammunition represents the most common type of weapons that school shooters use: handguns. And that’s what Gilbert’s products are made to protect against.

“[Handguns] are easy to tuck in your pants and conceal. And they can fire 45 rounds in a minute,” Gilbert said. “Most people are worried about a rifle. But the chances of that are slimmer.”

A 2018 analysis of FBI data confirms that 56% of gunmen in 200 studied shootings used handguns, while 27% used rifles. The rest used shotguns.

Gilbert designed his shields and backpacks with Kevlar, a fabric traditionally used for bulletproof products, that he coats in a sort of carbon-based plaster to make it even tougher. The material, when layered, can block multiple rounds from a handgun without damage.

Gilbert acknowledges that his backpacks and shields are less effective at blocking gunfire from the semi-automatic rifles used at Sandy Hook and the Las Vegas massacre. He picked up another bullet — a tall one for an AR-15. “This was the one the guy in Ohio used,” he said. He grabbed one for an AK-47, too. “This was the one the guy in Texas used.”

Most inexpensive bulletproof materials don’t protect against those, though Gilbert says he’s working toward that after those two most recent shootings have again raised concerns.

Frank Mylar, an attorney who lives in Cottonwood Heights, said he plans to buy from Citizen Armor because he likes the quality. “You can’t guard against everything,” he said. “But when there’s an easy fix, it’s worth the price.”

His 17-year-old daughter is going to college in Orlando later this month, and he plans to give her a shield to carry in her backpack. They run from $70 to $330, depending on the size. A full backpack can go for up to $1,500.

Every time there’s a mass shooting, Gilbert’s sales spike, including 20% after the attack on the high school in Parkland, Fla., where 17 were killed last year. In his first year of business, he sold $500,000 worth of bulletproof gear.

‘Figure out a way to help’

Gilbert’s warehouse sits in a tiny business park in Provo next to a hemp store and shares space with a company that makes bulletproof glass.

In Utah County, residents rank No. 28 in the nation for having the most guns per capita. Gilbert picked this spot for that reason. He is, as you might expect, a registered Republican who strongly supports the Second Amendment. And he was a National Rifle Association instructor for years.

But as the nation debates gun control over divides that split red and blue, he sees his business as a way to bridge the political gap. Everyone, he said, wants their kids to be safe.

He designed the bulletproof insert to be lightweight, easy to slip into a bag and affordable for most. The larger and stronger and heavier backpacks came next. Most recently, he’s made a three-ring binder that opens wide into shield. For that, he had teachers in mind.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Aaron Gilbert demonstrates a 3-ring binder that doubles as a shield. Gilbert runs Citizen Armor, a company in Provo that makes bulletproof backpacks and other products, such asa bullet proof binder at his company headquarters in Provo, Monday, Aug. 5, 2019.

Inside, there’s space for lined paper and pencils. There are also two pockets — one with a taser and one with a bottle of pepper spray.

“They’re not trained as body guards," he said of teachers. "But we need to figure out a way to help.”

The rest of his warehouse is filled with other prototypes. Mannequins wearing bulletproof vests. A bag for a medic with Kevlar lining. Screens for school windows that could prevent a shooter from breaking them open.

He has tried selling his backpack inserts at gun shops in the county. There’s one at nearly every freeway exit. But none wanted them in the shops, Gilbert said, because they didn’t think they’d sell well. He says even Amazon kicked Citizen Armor off its site.

But Gilbert said he sometimes sells 70 inserts in two days on his website — and the back-to-school demand, so far, appears to be even higher.

Should kids need these backpacks?

Bulletproof backpacks are a somewhat dystopian product.

Hundreds of companies have stepped up to offer the protective school gear as mass shootings have become a more common part of American life. In Utah stores, for instance, back-to-school shelves at Office Max and Office Depot hold backpacks that brag “Protection is in session” and “Convenience for today. Safety & protection for tomorrow.”

“These companies are capitalizing on parents’ fears,” suggested Mary Ann Thompson, who leads Utah’s chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. “We’re asking children to stand up to gunmen because lawmakers are too scared to stand up to the gun lobby. This product shouldn’t exist."

Gilbert believes that’s unfair; he said he’s not trying to benefit off of fear but wants to help people feel safer when the options are limited. He agrees that legislators could be doing more — and he supports President Donald Trump’s calls for mental health being a part of background checks to buy guns.

“That really pisses me off. All the shootings do, too,” he said. “These poor people don’t have anything to do to protect themselves.”

The shootings in Ohio and Texas last week have reignited the controversial issue. California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democrat also running for president, tweeted recently that parents buying bulletproof backs “shouldn’t be normal.” Thompson said it reinforces the idea that children should see the classroom as dangerous place instead of somewhere to learn and create. She doesn’t want to teach her grandkids to have to shield themselves.

Ainsley Moench, the new chairwoman of Utah’s March For Our Lives group, formed after the shooting in Parkland, Fla., said she’s participated in safety drills almost every year and worries constantly about an attack. But she believes a policy change would be a better solution than a bulletproof backpack — which some students may not be able to afford and which others might leave in their lockers.

“It’s sad that we’ve gotten to the point where we have enough school shootings that parents even have to think of buying these and that there’s a market for it,” the senior at Skyline High School said.

Christensen wishes he didn’t have to think about it. But, he added, he only wants to keep his daughters safe.

There was a lockdown at Marissa’s junior high last year after a student threatened to shoot his classmates. The police came, and it turned out to be just a rumor. Still, it left Marissa pretty shaken up.

“These shields," the dad suggested, "give victims some control over what can happen.”