How body armor became a common feature in mass shootings

In the past two weeks, two different 18-year-olds on opposite sides of the country stormed into spaces once presumed to be safe and opened fire on unsuspecting innocents.

While the mass shooting at a grocery store in Buffalo, N.Y., and the one at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, show no signs of coordination or even similar motives, the weapons used by these teenage gunmen seem drawn from the same playbook. Not only had they both used legally purchased semiautomatic assault rifles, but both had also been outfitted with tactical gear to match their military-grade weapons.

In Buffalo, the shooter wore a combat helmet and body armor, which allowed him to carry out his deadly rampage even after getting shot by a security guard. The Uvalde gunman also reportedly wore a tactical vest used to hold extra ammunition, though — contrary to initial reports — authorities now say his vest did not contain materials that would protect him from bullets.

Like AR-15 semi-automatic rifles, body armor and other tactical gear have become an increasingly common feature of mass shootings — a trend that experts say is as much a cultural phenomenon as it is a strategic one.

According to a database of mass shootings compiled by the Violence Project, a nonpartisan organization that studies gun violence, at least 21 mass shooters over the last four decades have worn body armor, and the majority of them have been during the past 10 years.

Body armor that saved the life of a member of the British Royal Marines shot at close range by an Iraqi soldier armed with a Kalashnikov.
Body armor that saved the life of a member of the British Royal Marines who was shot at close range by an Iraqi soldier armed with a Kalashnikov. (PA Images via Getty Images)
Body armor generally refers to a variety of protective gear that ranges from soft vests, which are made of flexible ballistic fabric that can shield against knives and handgun rounds, to ceramic plates that are inserted into carrier vests and can withstand rifle fire. On the low end, soft bulletproof vests can cost a couple hundred dollars, while a set of high-end body armor can run into the thousands. Tactical gear includes body armor as well as a range of other apparel, such as boots, goggles, gloves and belts that are designed for military or law enforcement purposes.

Body armor has been used by perpetrators of some of the most high-profile mass shootings over the past several years, including the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the San Bernardino, Calif. attack in 2015, and the shooting last year at a grocery store in Boulder, Colo. The gunman who killed 26 people at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2017 also wore body armor.

“It’s not a coincidence … that persons like this arm themselves with tactical gear or arm themselves with the most popular weapons of mass destruction,” Aaron Westrick, a body armor expert and criminal justice professor at Lake Superior State University in Michigan, told Yahoo News. Westrick said even if the Uvalde shooter wasn’t technically wearing body armor, the fact that he wore a tactical vest “speaks to the motivation of the shooter.”

“Obviously if you take the time to put on a tactical vest … it tells you that they know they’re going to war,” he said.

Westrick, who has also served as a sheriff’s deputy in Michigan’s Charlevoix County since 1981, said the use of body armor by mass shooters is part of what he calls an “arms race” in which both police and violent offenders, including mass shooters, are using more sophisticated weapons and protective gear in an effort to outmatch each other.

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