Body armor on the rise in mass shootings like Buffalo and Uvalde

The body armor seen at the 2015 gun expo is not banned for civilian use in the United States.
Photo: The Washington Post via Getty Images

The gunman who killed 19 children in a single classroom in Uvalde, Texas, was no more prepared than the 18-year-old who had killed 10 people in a racist attack at a Buffalo supermarket just 10 days earlier.

For protection, both suspects wore bulletproof vests known as tactical plate carriers, designed for soldiers to insert heavy ceramic plates into the front and back panels to protect their torso from gunfire. In Buffalo, a lengthy article published before the riot said the suspects were wearing expensive plate carriers that could stop bullets from AK-47s, as well as less powerful bullets fired from armed guards’ handguns. But authorities in Texas say the plate carriers would have been useless because the shooter wasn’t wearing plates at all. “They’re just nylon,” said pistol instructor Nick Humphries.

Even if the Uvalde killer did not wear the vest as intended, he would have joined the ranks of American mass murderers who have come to rely on body armor to make their attacks more lethal. Over the past decade, vests have become increasingly common in such shootings, worn in the 2021 Boulder supermarket attack that left 10 people dead, the 2017 Sutherland Springs church shooting that left 26 people dead, the 2015 San Bernardino shooting that left 16 people dead, and the 2012 Aurora movie theater shooting that left 12 people dead. The Pulse shooter, who killed 49 people, tried to buy a vest. The Virginia Beach shooter left a vest at his home. With more and more horrific and preventable mass shootings every year, vests have also been worn in many other attacks that have been pushed from memory and perhaps forgotten. According to the mass shooting database compiled by the Violence Project, 21 mass shooters in attacks over the past 40 years have been “It does not result from other criminal activity or everyday circumstances.” He is wearing some sort of bulletproof vest.

Some criminologists have identified the trend as a way for ideologically motivated shooters to draw attention to their cause. “The goal is to get people’s attention and make them take notice,” James Densley, a criminal justice professor and co-founder of the Violence Project, told The Associated Press. “One way to do that is to dress like a soldier.” But psychological explanations obscure a simpler reason for the rise in mass shooters: bulletproof vests help these killers kill more people.

The Buffalo shooter knew this. In a statement shortly before the attack, he wrote to his guards that he needed a plate carrier vest to “minimize the chances of instant death.” He claimed to have purchased two plates from a manufacturer called RMA Armament, a company founded in 2013 by a former Marine and named after the initials of his three daughters. According to technical specifications, the ceramic plates are designed to shatter bullets on impact and disperse the bullet’s lethal energy, at which point dense plastic polymer fibers absorb the fragments “like a catcher’s mitt.” RMA plates cost more than $300 a piece and are tested against the standards of the Department of Justice’s lab to stop bullets from common assault rifles such as the AR-15.

In the Buffalo attack, security guard Aaron Salter fired at the gunman, but “the bullets didn’t penetrate his bulletproof vest,” Buffalo’s mayor said. If the gunman hadn’t been wearing a bulletproof vest, Salter’s bullets might have stopped him, but Salter, a former police officer, was killed in the shootout.

In the US, sales of bulletproof vests to civilians have skyrocketed, and police have had to adapt their tactics. Traditionally, officers are trained to shoot at the torso, or the so-called “center of mass.” Aaron Westrick, a criminal justice professor at Lake Superior State University, says that the “center of mass has actually moved upward” of the standard police qualification test target, the human-shaped silhouette that officers use to train in target practice. “The center of mass used to be at the torso, from the navel to the shoulders,” he says. “Today, many of the targets move up from the center toward the head and neck area.” But the shift in the target obviously creates problems: the head is a much smaller target than the torso. And in incidents like the one in Buffalo, the gunmen are also wearing bulletproof helmets, making it even harder for the “good guy with the gun” to land a fatal shot.

In the United States, adults who have not been convicted of a felony can purchase bulletproof vests and plates online in every state except Connecticut, where bulletproof vests must be purchased directly from a retailer. Efforts to regulate sales have stalled at the national level. In 2019, following a shooting in Ohio where a gunman was wearing a bulletproof vest, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York introduced a bill that would have required FBI authorization for non-law enforcement to purchase “advanced” bulletproof vests, such as plate carrier vests. The bill died before it even reached the Senate, along with a bill to restrict sales of the assault rifles that make these shootings so deadly in the first place.

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