Buffalo shooting reignites calls for bulletproof vest restrictions

Buffalo Police Chief Joseph Gramaglia, testifying before Congress this month, said the recent domestic terrorism attack at the city’s Tops supermarket was even more deadly because the shooter was wearing a military-style bulletproof vest and bulletproof helmet.

Gramaria described how former police officer Aaron Salter Jr. confronted the shooter and fired multiple shots, hitting him, but was unable to stop him. Salter was one of 10 people killed in the May 14 shooting.

“[Salter’s] “Military-style weapons were no match for the military-style weapons and armor equipped by the perpetrators,” he wrote to lawmakers.

The details have reignited a debate among local elected officials and law enforcement about whether tactical body armor, which is largely unregulated nationwide, has an appropriate place in civilian society.

New York state passed a new law aimed at banning such devices shortly after the shooting, and Gramaria said he supports the law and thinks it could serve as a model.

“Why would you need tactical body armor,” he told ABC News in an interview on Capitol Hill after his testimony, “unless you’re in a profession that requires you to wear it. I think the law still says that if you’re in a profession that requires it, you can get it. But why should an ordinary citizen have body armor?”

Some experts worry that New York’s new law may have caused a surge in sales of such gear, and that it’s too narrow to actually cover the type of armor used by the Buffalo shooter.

Federally, it’s illegal for felons convicted of violent crimes to possess tactical gear, such as military-style bulletproof vests. The city of Chicago also bans it, and in Connecticut, it’s illegal to buy tactical gear online; sales there must be done in person.

The reality is that there are very few checks available online, and a wide variety that can be purchased and delivered to just about anyone within a few days.

The Violence Project, a nonpartisan research center that studies gun violence in the US, found that in at least 21 mass shooters in the past 40 years, including in Sutherland Springs, Texas; San Bernardino, California; and Aurora, Colorado, the perpetrators wore bulletproof vests during the attacks.

And there’s evidence that this trend is becoming more and more common.

“When a shooter goes out into a public place and opens fire, [gear] “In some ways, continuing to shoot may have a more lethal impact, but it’s also copycat behavior. Shooters look to past shooters for inspiration and want to be like them, so there’s copycat behavior going on here,” Mark Vollman, a writer who has covered mass shootings for more than a decade, told ABC News in a Zoom interview.

“The purchase of tactical gear in itself doesn’t mean anything. But if an individual of concern is going out and doing this, it can be significant. In other words, an individual who is already on watch for disturbing behavior is often preceded by a long pattern of disturbing behavior, as we see in nearly all of these cases. So, in that context, if that individual goes out to purchase tactical gear or a lot of ammunition or a new weapon, that can be a warning sign,” Folman added, noting that the Constitution makes no mention of a right over tactical gear, so in theory body armor could be easier to regulate than some guns.

John Cohen, a former counterterrorism coordinator for the Department of Homeland Security, agreed that some state and even federal lawmakers could use New York’s new law as a model for new legislation.

“We need to think seriously about whether we should restrict the sale of bulletproof vests to anyone except those whose jobs require their use. I see very little reason why the average person should be allowed to go out and buy a bulletproof vest or a bulletproof shield,” Cohen, who is also an ABC News contributor, said in an interview.

Experts are concerned about the rise of heavily militarized advertising, both online and at gun shows, that focuses on the need for “combat” and “warrior” readiness.

Keith Barrett runs one of the largest distributors of bulletproof vests on the East Coast. His company sells a variety of equipment online and at gun shows, from bulletproof helmets to concealed body armor to military-style vests that can withstand several rifle hits. Designed to be worn inside the vest, he sells removable bulletproof plates made from a variety of metals and ceramics, with varying prices and effectiveness.

At a gun show outside Philadelphia last weekend, he displayed a pink camouflage vest and a small plaque designed for a child’s vest.

“This is a piece of defensive equipment that anyone can buy just in case. I’m talking about the average amateur. If we’re talking about people who are active in sport shooting, who go to the range regularly and handle weapons, it’s no different than earplugs or eye protection. It’s an extremely common and sensible thing to have that kind of safety equipment,” he told ABC News in an interview outside the gun show.

Barrett, the former Maryland state trooper, bristled when asked whether bulletproof vests make it harder for police to respond to mass shootings, saying in recent years the age and demographics of people seeking them have grown.

“Tell the average council member who lives in a half-million-dollar home to go into the inner city and live in an environment where people are shooting at each other every day, and tell them they don’t need a bulletproof vest,” he added.

He acknowledges that because there are no federal regulations requiring background checks for the sale of bulletproof vests, gun shows take their customers’ word for it when it comes to criminal histories.

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