On the third day of school, Cecily King decided she needed to upgrade her middle-schooler's bulletproof backpack liner with one that could shield her from the rapid-fire rounds of an assault rifle.
This is what back-to-school shopping in America looks like.
The $300 insert is advertised as providing "military-trusted" protection for the "vital torso area" of a young child in the line of fire in a classroom. The upgrade was prompted by the events of Aug. 23, when King, a St. Louis-area dance instructor and mother of four, received emails and texts from her daughter's middle school about a "yellow-level threat." The threat led to a two-hour lockdown.
"It was a very long two hours," King said.
For many in the area, the memories are still vivid from a shooting last year at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA) and Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, with which CVPA shares a building. On Oct. 24, 2022, a 19-year-old armed with a Palmetto State Armory PA-15 rifle killed a teacher and a student there.
Five of King's dance students attended CVPA.
"They were jumping over bullets on the floor, running past a body," she said.
That's when she and her husband decided to purchase the initial bulletproof backpack protection for their daughter, along with a cellphone with a GPS tracking app. After the Aug. 23 threat at the school, King's mother offered to split the cost of a new backpack liner that can protect against automatic rifle bullets.
"It's maddening. It's sickening. It makes my stomach turn that in order to keep my kid safe in school, this is what we have to do," King said.
Shooters have used AR-15s or similar semi-automatic rifles to massacre people in a grocery store in Boulder, Colorado; a nightclub in Orlando, Florida; a high school in Parkland, Florida; a music festival in Las Vegas; a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado; an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut; a Waffle House in Nashville, Tennessee; an office party in San Bernardino, California; on the streets of Midland and Odessa, Texas; in synagogues near San Diego and in Pittsburgh; a church service in Sutherland Springs, Texas; an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas; and a dollar store in Jacksonville, Florida. There were more school shootings in 2022 -- 46 -- than in any year since at least 1999, according to a tracker maintained by the Washington Post. The paper has counted 386 school shootings since Columbine.
No other country in the world comes close to murdering its schoolchildren the way America does.
Sales for bulletproof backpacks soared last year after a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde. He killed 19 children and two teachers.
The gear doesn't stop with bulletproof backpacks: In December, a New Jersey school district equipped its schools with armored shields: Ostensibly, teachers are supposed to hide students behind the shields while herding them to a safe corner of a classroom or ushering them outdoors. The shields were mounted next to fire extinguishers.
In the wake of the horror in Uvalde, Republicans pivoted to talking about ways to "harden" or fortify schools. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz talked about changing schools' doors. Anything to avoid mentioning the elephant in the room: the hundreds of millions of guns flooding America.
When St. Louis Mayor Tishaura Jones talked recently about her efforts to rein in the AR-15s on the city's streets, gun lovers had the usual meltdowns about their "rights" -- to conceal carry; to open carry; to buy, on a whim, whenever and however they want, the very weapons used to terrorize and massacre our children.
Any nation that makes guns more precious than its own children has lost its way.
A recent post in a moms' Facebook group asked about the best ways to track the location of elementary school-aged children. Moms swapped tips about the best surveillance and tracking devices. A few mothers said they attach Apple AirTags to their kids' shoes and backpacks.
Our Republican lawmakers would rather see a kindergartner covered in body armor, lugging a bulletproof backpack with GPS trackers planted in their sneakers, than pass gun safety laws.
The GOP wants to harden schools.
They've already hardened their hearts.