Escalating Firepower Triggers Ballistic Resistant Vest Arms Race

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2013
Active Shooter
It wasn’t long ago that if you were wearing a ballistic resistant vest, you could be pretty confident that you were protected against most situations where a gun was involved

It wasn’t long ago that if you were wearing a ballistic resistant vest, you could be pretty confident that you were protected against most situations where a gun was involved but those days are drawing to a close. According to a Texas State University report active shooters going on a rampage are employing weapons with greater firepower that, in some cases, are more than a match for the type of ballistic resistant vest being worn by many police departments and law enforcement agencies.

The new more powerful weapons, some available in big box retail stores, are touching off an arms race in unlikely places among individuals with widely disparate motivations. While it might be understandable that law enforcement would want to upgrade their body armor and ballistic resistant vest there are many actors in the arms upgrade drama, including a few you might never expect.

The Shooters Themselves

At least two active shooters in mass casualty events were wearing body armor and one of those was able to stop bullets from high-powered rifles. When people toying with the idea of going on a shooting spree are doing research, that search now more often includes a ballistic resistant vest. They know they might encounter police or armed security and rampage shooters are gearing up before heading out.

While the crime of passion mass shooters, the ones storming into a spouse’s office and opening fire, may be impulse driven the most deadly variety are careful and methodical in their planning. They’re carrying multiple weapons, wearing body armor and are expecting resistance. James Holmes, the shooter in the Aurora, Colorado, theater massacre even when to the trouble of boobytrapping his house before leaving for his shooting spree. Just because spree shooters are mentally unbalanced doesn’t mean they’re not capable.

In practical terms that may mean law enforcement equipped with small caliber handguns and lightweight body armor may be facing a new breed of armored spree killer carrying heavy caliber military-style weapons and a large quantity of ammunition.

Survivalists with a ballistic resistant vest

One of the unexpected side effects of new, more powerful man-portable weapons available for retail distribution is now generating a mini arms race among survivalists and doomsday preppers. Most of the really hard core survival types already had body armor in their bug out trailers and underground forts but gradual escalation of firepower has prompted some to start re-evaluating their armament.

In the case of doomsday preppers, it’s not just body armor in line for upgrades, but also the firearms they stock. For them futuristic combat scenarios include fighting off their neighbors, so the well-stocked survivalist has to have state of the art firepower. A few hardy souls are not stopping at more powerful rifles, they’re also buying armor piercing ammunition to go with them.

When the neighbors are using more powerful rifles, sometimes in conjunction with armor piercing ammunition, it fuels the need for true believers to consider more capable body armor. An ordinary bulletproof vest won’t due in the apocalypse, it has to be tactical body armor capable of offering protection from the most powerful firearms on the market.

Not content to trust the certification testing of NIJ laboratories, survivalists are doing their own testing to judge the capability of body armor and ballistic panels. In this test, Level III and Level IV armor plates from EnGarde are shot multiple times with a variety of weapons to test their multi-hit capabilities.

Gang members with a ballistic resistant vest

Despite a patchwork of state laws prohibiting felons from possessing body armor, gang members in states without body armor restrictions are availing themselves to lighter, more comfortable concealable body armor and at least a few are opting for heavier tactical armor on a situational basis.

Outside the U.S. the situation is very different. In some parts of Mexico cartel fighters are so well armed they’re indistinguishable from soldiers. Many are equipped with military grade assault rifles, advanced tactical body armor, ballistic helmets and state of the art encrypted communications gear. They look so much like soldiers that on more than one occasion the U.S. Border Patrol mistook them for Mexican military units.

Ballistic resistant vest for Law enforcement

This would be the most obvious group to want state of the art body armor but even for them the solution is not always an easy one. The greater the protection, the hotter and heavier the tactical vest becomes. Many front line law enforcement officers already spend long working hours in a bullet resistant vest and upgrading them all to vests capable of stopping high powered rifle rounds would just make their jobs that much harder.

Some have turned to products like EnGarde’s T.R.U.S.T® Plate Carrier system that allows law enforcement personnel to change the level of protection in tactical vests to respond to different types of threats. Officers can employ Level III or IIIA for routine patrols and, in case of an active shooter incident, can quickly change the inserts to a higher level of protection.

Body armor that can be quickly repurposed to meet more substantial threats also can help law enforcement agencies not look like soldiers. Many Americans are alarmed by what they see as the militarization of local police forces. Some of the changes to local law enforcement are mandated by the federal government as part of anti-terrorism efforts, others stem from an increasing reliance by law enforcement on tactical teams to serve warrants or even respond to something as simple as code violations.

With the heightened public concern of militarization, anything local police departments can do to look less like military units in the course of their regular patrols is a public relations bonus. All the same law enforcement personnel need state of the art protection because they’re the first ones on the scene when active shooters go on a rampage. There are no easy answers and we can expect the balance between safety and optics going forward to be an uneasy one.

Firearms manufacturers are not standing still and the unfortunate reality is we can expect both the capability and lethality of guns and ammunition available at retail stores to continue to increase. As firearms become more capable it will push manufacturers of ballistic resistant vests to continue upgrading the stopping power of their products. Like any arms race, it’s a contest measured by casualties and there are no real winners.