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(WASHINGTON) — Buffalo Police Commissioner Joseph Gramaglia testified on Capitol Hill this month that the recent domestic terror attack at the Tops supermarket in his city was even more deadly because the shooter was wearing military-style body armor and a ballistic helmet.
Gramaglia described how retired police officer Aaron Salter, Jr. confronted the shooter, got off multiple shots — even struck the shooter — but was unable to stop him. Salter was one of the 10 people killed in the mass shooting on May 14.
“[Salter’s] service weapon was no match for the military-style weapons and armor the perpetrator was equipped with,” he wrote to lawmakers.
Those details have renewed a debate among local elected officials and law enforcement about whether tactical body armor, which is largely unregulated across the country, has an appropriate place in civilian society.
Right after the shooting, New York signed into a law a new policy aiming to ban such gear. Gramaglia said he supports it and thinks it could be a model.
“Why do you need tactical body armor?” he told ABC News in an interview on Capitol Hill after testifying. “Unless you’re in a profession that requires the use of it. And I think the law still leaves it open that if you have a job that requires it, then you can still obtain it. But why does the average citizen need to have body armor?”
Some experts worry the new law in New York could have caused a spike in the sale of such gear and also may have been written too narrowly to actually include the type of armor the Buffalo shooter used.
At the federal level, it is against the law for felons convicted of violent crimes to tactical gear like military-style, bullet proof vest. The City of Chicago has a ban on the books too, and in Connecticut it is illegal to purchase tactical gear online. Sales in that state have to be done in person.
In reality, there are few checks and a huge range available online, that can be purchased and delivered to almost anyone in days.
The Violence Project, a non-partisan research center that studies gun violence in America, found that at least 21 times in the last 40 years a mass shooter has worn body armor during their attacks, including in Sutherland Springs, Texas; San Bernardino, California; and Aurora, Colorado.
And there is evidence the trend is growing more frequent.
“Shooters understand if they go into a public place and open fire, that this [gear] could, in a sense, help them continue to shoot and to make more of a deadly impact. But it is also a point of emulation behavior — shooters looking to previous attackers for inspiration and wanting to be like them. So there’s some imitation going on here, too,” author Mark Follman, who has covered mass shootings for more than a decade, told ABC News in a zoom interview.
“The purchase of tactical gear in and of itself tells you nothing. But if a person of concern is going out and doing this, that could be significant. In other words, a person who is already on the radar for disturbing behaviors, as we see in virtually all of these cases, they’re preceded by a long pattern, often of disturbing behavior. So in that context, if a person is then going out to purchase tactical gear or large quantities of ammunition or new weapons, that could be a warning sign,” Follman added, saying that armor in theory, could also be easier to regulate than some guns as there is no mention in the constitution about any right to anything around tactical gear.
Former counterterrorism coordinator at the Department of Homeland Security, John Cohen, agreed some state and even federal lawmakers might look to the new New York law as an example for writing new bills.
“We need to think very hard about whether we should be regulating the sales of body armor unless one is in a profession that requires its use. I see very little reason why a member of the public should be allowed to go out and buy a bulletproof vest or a ballistic shield,” Cohen, who is also an ABC News contributor, said in an interview.
Experts worry about an increase in hyper-militarized advertising both online and at gun shows focused on a need to be “combat” or “warrior” ready.
Keith Barrett runs one of the largest body armor retailer companies on the East Coast. Online and at gun shows his company sells a range of gear from ballistic helmets to concealable armor to military-style vests that are able to take several hits from riffle rounds. They sell bulletproof, removable plates designed to sit inside a vest and are made from various metals or ceramics, ranging in cost and efficacy.
At a gun show outside Philadelphia last weekend, he had one pink camouflage vest on display as well as smaller plates designed for kids’ vests.
“It’s a piece of defensive equipment that somebody can buy just in case. And that’s just a regular layperson. Now, if you’re talking about people who are active sports shooters, go to range handle weapons on a regular basis – that would be no different than ear protection or eye protection. It’s extremely common and prudent to have that piece of safety equipment,” he told ABC News during an interview outside the gun show.
Barrett, a retired Maryland State Police officer, bristled when asked about whether body armor could make it harder for law enforcement to respond to active shooter situations and said he has seen a wider range in ages and demographics of people at shows looking for armor in the last few years.
“Tell the average lawmaker who lives in his $500,000 house to go down to the inner city and live in the environment where they’re shooting at each other every day and tell them they don’t need body armor,” he added.
He concedes that as there are no federal regulations requiring background checks for the sale of body armor; at gun shows, he is taking customers at their word in terms of their criminal record.
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