Adam Lanza wore a utility vest as he opened fire at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., last Friday, killing 26 people—20 of them children under the age of 10. James Holmes, the alleged perpetrator of the Aurora, Col., theater massacre in July, wore an armor vest and a ballistic helmet.
"The people intent on committing these atrocities outfit themselves with the macabre tools of their trade ... and the defensive gear to ensure they do the most damage," says Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the Violence Policy Center. a D.C.-based gun control research organization.
Though body armor is typically worn by law enforcement or military, it is not difficult for people like Lanza or Holmes to obtain.
Multiple body armor companies refused to comment on record for this story, citing sensitivity to the Newtown shooting. But bulletproof vests, stab-proof vests and ballistic helmets can be easily found and bought online from companies like Safeguardclothing.com, or through local dealers of companies like Armor Express. Available products include both soft body armor, which is made out of woven fibers and can stop a bullet from a typical police handgun, as well as hard body armor plates, which is made of metal or ceramic and can stop rounds from a more powerful weapon like an AK-47.
Gun control advocacy groups like Sugarmann's say the body armor worn by the shooters in Newtown and Aurora undermines the argument made by gun advocates that shootings can be stopped by someone with a handgun. Sites like GunsSaveLives.com collect stories of people who successfully used a firearm to defend themselves or others, and an incident map on the site includes hundreds of such stories.
"Anybody with a credit card and a very clean record can build their own army in America—from an assault weapon with a high capacity magazine down to a ballistic helmet down to body armor," says Sugarmann, who believes the U.S. needs tighter restrictions on the sale of body armor.
The U.S. has a federal ban on the possession of body armor by convicted felons, and further regulations on sales of body armor exist in some states. But one major company told U.S. News that body armor is easy for even felons to acquire, and noted that they recently cooperated with the FBI in providing the serial number to armor purchased from the company by a felon.
Connecticut has one of the toughest laws on body armor, prohibiting residents from buying or selling body armor except through a face-to-face sale. In 2009, New York introduced legislation intended to restrict the sale of body armor to law enforcement officers. Though the bill never became law, body armor sites appear worried more legislation is coming soon.
"Make your body armor purchase now before it becomes much more expensive and inconvenient," BulletProofMe.com warns on its website, "if not prohibited altogether."
Connecticut state police originally said Adam Lanza was wearing a bulletproof vest. State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance now says he was wearing a utility vest.