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 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.
“Now your suspects are tacking up, getting tactical gear and so on,” he said. “They’re as well equipped as the officers responding, and sometimes they’re harder to put down.”
James Densley, co-founder of the Violence Project, said that in addition to protecting the gunmen and prolonging their violence, as was the case in Buffalo, growing use of body armor by mass shooters may also be attributed to what he calls “the contagion aspect of mass shootings.”
“Our research shows mass shooters study other mass shooters and copycat them,” Densely said in an email to Yahoo News. “Wearing body armor may be another way of mass shootings conforming with cultural expectations about what a mass shooting should look like.”
In most of the country, the steep cost is the biggest, if not the only, barrier to accessing body armor. Though the vast majority of body armor sold in the United States is used by law enforcement, military and security professionals, these products are legally available to most of the general public.
Federal law prohibits people who’ve been convicted of violent felonies from purchasing or possessing body armor, and several states have similar laws on the books. A number of states also have laws that make it illegal to wear body armor while committing a crime. While such laws can result in longer prison sentences for armored criminals, they don’t have any impact on retailers.
No state requires permits, background checks or any kind of registration in order to purchase body armor. In fact, the state with the toughest law restricting the sale of body armor is Connecticut, which requires that such transactions be made in person.
Some body armor companies choose not to sell to civilians or have strict policies for vetting sales to anyone not affiliated with an official law enforcement, military or other government agency.
But not everyone is so discerning. Some companies will sell body armor to anyone who wants it and can pay in stores, at gun shows and online. Vests, plate inserts and a variety of other tactical gear can even be purchased on Amazon. A number of body armor companies also promote their products on mainstream social media platforms, where they’re presented to an even broader civilian audience.
Ryan Busse, a former gun industry executive who now advocates in favor of gun control, said he has watched body armor grow in the last 15 years or so from a niche business that catered to police and military to an integral part of the broader firearms industry, with tactical gear now ubiquitous at gun stores and trade shows.
Busse has become particularly concerned about the way these products are promoted on social media, accusing body armor companies of “creating these unhinged citizen soldiers” through the use of “incendiary marketing campaigns.”
Busse argued that these campaigns seem to appeal directly to the demographic of young men who are often responsible for mass shootings, pointing to examples of public Instagram posts shared by body armor companies featuring images of “scantily clad women” and “machismo soldiers” and silly memes.
“It’s no wonder 18-year-old kids are buying into this,” he said.
One of the companies utilizing social media is RTS Tactical, a Miami-based company which, according to its Facebook page, “sells high quality, dependable tactical equipment for everyone from the enthusiast to the professional.” Such equipment, which can be purchased online — and shipped free within the United States — includes a wide range of products, from plate carriers and ceramic inserts to ballistic shields and bulletproof memory foam pillows.
“Here at RTS Tactical we believe everyone should wear body armor,” reads one post on the company’s Instagram feed.
Mendel Berns, RTS Tactical’s marketing director, said the company’s marketing strategy is geared specifically toward military and law enforcement, not civilians, but the company does not refuse to sell to anyone.
“If civilians buy it, we don't have a problem with that,” he said. “We live in America. [You] have the right to protect yourselves, and we stand strongly with that.”
Berns emphasized that RTS Tactical sells defensive products, saying, “We sell products that save lives. We don't make products that take away life.” He argued that the positive uses of body armor far outweigh the negative ones.
“If you wake up one morning and you have an urge to go out and kill people, then yes, they shouldn't be buying body armor,” Berns said. At the same time, he argued, it’s impossible for companies to vet whether a customer may turn out to be a mass shooter. He suggested that policies restricting civilian access to body armor could end up denying lifesaving body armor to people who really need it.
“I don't think that falls under our responsibility to do the vetting,” he said.
Kenneth Hall, CEO of the Nevada-based Armor Research Company, which manufactures body armor and ballistic shields.
Hall’s company, where Westrick also works as a consultant, requires customers who want to purchase body armor to prove that they are an active service member in the military or a certified sworn officer with a federal, state or local law enforcement or other government agency. Civilians, including those working in private security, must provide a letter showing that they’ve been vetted by a government or law enforcement agency and are working for a reputable security company through which the armor can be purchased.
Hall said there are a handful of scenarios in which his company would consider selling or even loaning body armor to an individual civilian, though the person would still need to provide a letter from the highest local law enforcement or government official saying they’ve been vetted. These include couriers responsible for transporting high-value items, such as ATMs or jewelry; social workers who work in dangerous neighborhoods; or victims of stalking or domestic violence. Other than that, Hall said, he can’t think of many other legitimate reasons that civilians would need to wear body armor in their everyday lives.
“If you’re out on the street wearing body armor, you’re anticipating a conflict,” he continued. “I think anticipating a conflict means you’re looking for it.”
Hall mostly blames video games for teaching mass shooters to wear body armor, noting that one game even allows players to purchase a ballistic vest based on a real-life product made by his company – despite his efforts to stop it. But he thinks companies that market body armor to the general public also play a role.
“They’re marketing geniuses, and they are getting the average person to buy armor,” he said.
Westrick said he thinks there should be tougher restrictions on purchasing body armor, but he thinks the state of the larger gun debate makes that unlikely to happen.
“If you’re not going to say that people can’t buy assault weapons, how can you say 'You can’t buy armor?'” he asked.
Hall, on the other hand, is “really torn.”
He said he would not support legislation to restrict access to body armor – or guns for that matter – but suggested that civilian sales could be regulated by industry-led associations.
“I do agree there's a problem that needs to be solved,” he said.