On April 3, Vietnamese immigrant Jiverly Wong, 41, walked into an immigration-services center in Binghamton, N.Y., and opened fire, killing 13 people in the worst mass shooting in the U.S. since the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre. The following day, three Pittsburgh, Penn., police officers responding to a domestic disturbance were killed by 23-year-old Richard Poplawski. In both cases, the suspects were wearing body armor. Wong ultimately took his own life; police eventually took Poplawski into custody after a four-hour standoff, charging him with three counts of criminal homicide and nine counts of attempted homicide as well as charges stemming from his use of body armor in a criminal act. (See pictures of the scene in Binghamton.)
The two perpetrators are the latest examples of what investigators have begun calling "pseudo commandos" criminals who prepare for a showdown with law enforcement by strapping on bullet-resistant vests before battle. (Technically, body armor isn't considered bulletproof; depending on the vest, high-powered weapons can still cause life-threatening injuries). In one of the most famous cases, in 1997, bank robbers Larry Phillips Jr. and Emil Matasareanu faced off against police outside a Bank of America branch in North Hollywood covered in body armor and toting high-powered weapons. After injuring 11 officers and six civilians, both men were killed: Matasareanu by shots outside the coverage of his armor and Phillips by his own hand.
Body armor, by its very nature, is meant to protect the wearer from flying bullets, and in most circumstances outside a war zone it's tough to argue that they should be available for civilian use. For that reason, some states including New York ban their purchase by private citizens although Poplawski was permitted to buy armor under Pennsylvania law. Federal statutes also block convicted violent felons from buying body armor which can cost anywhere from $200 to $2,000 but as far as investigators have found, neither Wong nor Poplawski previously fit that criterion. With laws varying from state to state, the gear can often be bought off the Internet or at specialist retail outlets. (Posh London department store Harrods recently began carrying a line of "high-security fashion" by Colombian designer Miguel Caballero.)
Still, some manufacturers, like Florida-based Point Blank Body Armor Inc., make it their policy to provide gear only to licensed security, law-enforcement, corrections and military personnel. "We certainly would endorse and support any efforts to pass laws with tighter controls or limit body armor falling in the hands of people who should not have it," says Michael Foreman, senior vice president of sales for Point Blank and a 35-year veteran of the Orange County Sheriff's Department. But the fact is, laws against civilian use and purchase are sparse and often difficult to enforce.
Almost as long as humans have used offensive weapons, they've thought defensively as well. The very first types of armor were animal hides that cushioned the blows of clubs. Chinese warriors in the 11th century B.C. clad themselves in rhinoceros skin; ancient Greek warriors carried round, flat shields of bronze, reinforced with layers of hide and wax. In medieval Europe, knights and lords rode to battle in chain mail, a heavy, fantastically expensive armor forged from thousands of tiny links of steel. By the mid14th century, advances in technology namely, the high-velocity crossbow and longbow necessitated steel-plate armor that covered from head to toe.
The first versions of armor to protect against gunshots appeared in the 18th century, made of layers of cotton and sufficient enough to protect against rudimentary firearms. In the 1870s, Australian outlaw Ned Kelly famously crafted entire suits from steel for himself and his gang members for the final, ill-fated standoff with police that led to his capture. During the Korean War of the 1950s, U.S. forces used armor made of fiberglass, nylon and heat-treated aluminum. Today an array of protective gear is available including the soft ballistic vests favored by police and S.W.A.T. team members, often made out of Kevlar, a lightweight fiber five times stronger than steel. Hard armor plates, on the other hand, are made of thick ceramic or metal engineered to withstand high-powered assault weapons and are more often used in the military.
Body armor can be highly effective when worn properly; some analysts cite its use as standard equipment for U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan as reasons why troop fatalities in those conflicts have remained at historically low levels (even as a larger proportion of soldiers return home injured or maimed by wounds that previously would have killed them). But the same evolution that has likely saved thousands of lives is now raising the question of whether tighter regulation would save even more. When laws vary so widely from place to place and the civilian purchase of body armor becomes more common, the lines get more difficult to draw. "There's a challenge and a balance between giving consumers protective solutions and protecting those who serve," says Foreman. "I would not want to discount that there are others who may feel the need for protective solutions for their own safety."