Should civilians be allowed to wear bullet proof vests?

Posted at 9:41 AM, Feb 10, 2016
and last updated 2016-02-10 12:23:45-05

LAS VEGAS — Former police officer Brian Murphy was shot 15 times at the Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin in 2012.

Now he works for Michigan-based Armor Express and sells the same brand of bulletproof vest that saved his life.

But only to cops. He doesn’t think civilians should have them.

He said that criminals who wear bulletproof vests “change the whole dynamic” for cops, who are trained to shoot at the torso, because it’s a large target with vital organs.

Cops going up against an armored criminal “would have to shoot him in the head,” said Murphy. The head is a more difficult target to hit.

Murphy ought to know. He’s riddled with scars from the 2012 shooting.

“I was shot ten times in the appendages,” said Murphy. He pulled up his sleeves to reveal bullet-pocked arms. One of his fingertips was shot off.

He said that three of the shots hit his torso and would have been fatal, but they were stopped by the Armor Express vest. He was exhibiting the product at the SHOT Show, the annual conference of the National Shooting Sports Foundation.

Isaac Hatch, co-founder of HWI Inc. in Centennial, Colorado, was showing a different sort of body armor. It’s a suit called the Elite Defender — riot armor with breast and groin plates, arm guards, warrior boots and a visor helmet. Hatch said he’s received 1,000 pre-orders from various police departments.

Orders for his armor have been on the rise since the riots of Baltimore, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri, Hatch said. Unlike Armor Express, it’s not even bullet-resistant but designed for riot-style weapons like bricks and bottles.

Hatch dons the armor and tests it with help of his brother, co-founder Clinton Hatch, who beats him with a bat. “My brother’s no Barry Bonds, but he swings pretty hard,” said Hatch.

Armor Express and the Hatch brothers have never sold a suit to a civilian. But they could, if they wanted to.

Cops have been concerned about criminals wearing bulletproof armor ever since the infamous Los Angeles bank robbery of 1997, when two armored gunmen turned North Hollywood in a war zone. Outgunned cops broke into a gun store to try and get firearms that could pierce the gunmen’s body armor. They killed one of them by shooting him in the head. The other died in custody.

Federal law prohibits people convicted of violent crimes from possessing body armor. But local armor laws are relatively loose and vary widely around the country. New York state, including New York City with its restrictive gun laws, allows civilians to wear bullet-resistant vests so long as they’re not committing a violent felony.

Connecticut is probably the most restrictive state for bulletproof vests; it doesn’t allow convicted felons to wear them. Also, Connecticut does not allow online sales of body armor to civilians without a face-to-face transaction between the buyer and the seller.

But generally speaking, civilians in most states are free to buy bulletproof vests from online retailers like Armor Protection Technologies and BulletSafe. Prices range from $299 to $525.

“It’s very much wide open,” said Rafael Hernandez, co-owner of Armor Protection Technologies in Weston, Florida, who just started shipping vests last year and says there are virtually no regulations. “There’s a huge market out there.”

Tom Nardone, president of BulletSafe, which sells a bulletproof baseball cap for $129, called the Connecticut law “misguided.”

“Restricting their purchase seems backwards to me,” he said. “Would you restrict the sale of motorcycle helmets? Fire extinguishers?”

Mike Faw, a former police officer from North Carolina who is now a marketing executive for the laser sight company Crimson Trace, believes that civilians have a right to wear bulletproof vests. He wears one when he rides his motorcycle to his job.

“The vests with plates provide great protection when riding a motorcycle, snowmobile, jet ski or when in a boat,” Faw said. “If there’s a crash, the survival rate goes up dramatically for vest wearers. That impact with mirrors, handlebars, etc., is less traumatic when a vest is worn.”

Faw said they’re also good to wear at gun ranges because “you never know who could be shooting at the lane next to you.” Even when shooting with family and friends, he said, “accidents do happen.”

“There are no valid reasons to prevent the average citizen from owning a vest,” Faw said.