Body Armor for Civilian Self-Defense: Is It For You?

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Body Armor for Civilian Self-Defense: Is It For You?

The Chicago City Council passed the most restrictive and weirdest self-defense law in the United States in March 2018, some say. The ordinance passed was to ban civilians from having and wearing body armor or “bullet-proof” vests. Yes, even banned for self-defense or personal protection use by all civilians. And the entire state of Illinois is presently drafting a possible new state-wide law for banning civilian body armor. Both events to be continued.

Sorry about that if you are a night clerk at a 7-Eleven store in a neighborhood with heavy crime or a school kid wanting a bullet-proof plate in your backpack. Hey, civilian actors like Brad Pitt, Schwarzenegger, and Cruise use body armor too. And investigative journalists like Woodward and Bernstein need protection while covertly working. Even any law-abiding citizen, home defender, or concealed carrier may want some body armor protection against “bad guys and gals.”

Military Tactical Vest with AX III-A Ballistics
Military Tactical Vest with AX III-A Ballistics

Mandatory Body Armor for Military and Law Enforcement

Of course, military and law enforcement folks do wear and should be allowed to wear tactical body armor for personal protection. Recall in 2012, when police officer Brian Murphy was shot 15 times at the Sikh Temple massacre in Wisconsin. He survived thanks to his body armor, although badly bruised and injured.

But what about civilians and criminals?

Law enforcement officers 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 into a war zone. Outgunned cops broke into a gun store to try to get firearms that could pierce the gunmen’s body armor. They finally killed one “bad guy” by shooting him in the head, and the other died in custody. The shooter in the 2012 Aurora, CO movie theater wore body armor, and the man who killed 49 people at the Orlando, FL nightclub in 2016 tried to buy it.

Civilians can buy and use body armor!

New Chicago Law Warns of the “Insurmountable Threat” if Offenders Acquire Body Armor

Yes, just what we need is another controlling and to-be-unenforced personal protection law. It seems that is the quick-reflex reaction nowadays. Aren’t there laws already on the books to prevent the improper use of body armor by criminals, that need enforcing? Surely, another law will stop criminals from using body armor in their crimes?

In my state Florida, there is an existing law that makes it a crime to wear body armor during the commission of a crime. And, unless convicted of a Felony, adults in Florida can buy, possess, and use vests for protection. Similar state laws at this time allow the purchase, possession, and use of body armor, UNLESS convicted of a Felony, e.g. (not inclusive): TX, VA, OH, GA, TN, PA, MI, MN, MA, CO, CA, NY, WA.

In Maryland, you must get a permit issued by the Secretary of State Police for using, possessing, or purchasing body armor if you have a conviction for a violent crime or drug trafficking.

In New Jersey, you can be charged separately for using a bulletproof vest while carrying out criminal acts. There is a lot of variance by state and laws are loose, but Federal law prohibits people convicted of violent crimes from possessing body armor.

Residents of Connecticut are prohibited from buying body armor unless the sale is face to face or unless the buyer is a police officer, Police Department, or military member. At this time some states, like Illinois and New York, are considering new state legislation to prohibit or restrict sales of body armor to civilians.

Bulletproof Vests - Pro Max Concealable Vest

Are we returning to the 15th Century Medieval times in Chicago? Will a new law stop the “insurmountable threat” in Chicago? For protection, we do NOT restrict the selling, purchasing, possession, or use of fire extinguishers or motorcycle helmets. Some friends now use vests with plates which provide excellent added protection when riding a motorcycle, jet ski, boat, or snowmobile to help their crash survival rate.

It is my opinion that WE AS CIVILIANS HAVE THE RIGHT TO BUY, OWN, POSSESS, AND USE BODY ARMOR for self-defense… IF we so choose. It seems that almost ALL states and nearly ALL cities agree, per existing laws. This new Chicago, Illinois law now closely rivals some ancient and unusual Chicago and Massachusetts General Laws (MGL) still on the books, according to DumbLaws.com and the law office of S.C. Ryan.

Unusual Laws Already Exist

In Chicago, people who are diseased, maimed, mutilated, or “otherwise an unsightly or disgusting object” are banned by law from going out in public, per Mapquest Travel. Further, those under age 21 can drink legally in Illinois, but they must be enrolled in a culinary program to do so. In Morton Grove, IL, you could not own a handgun, until a related law was repealed in 2008. Thank goodness that law helped to reduce earlier violence…? Also, it is illegal for anyone other than a police officer to use a slingshot in Chicago. Some of these older laws are probably not enforced. Why do they still exist on the books? Shouldn’t ALL laws be enforced, if in existence? If not, do away with them or modify them.

720 Illinois Compiled Statute 5, Chapter 38, Section 14-2 says it is a Class 4 Felony, punishable by up to 3 years in state prison, for the crime of “eavesdropping” on your own conversation. Sorry if you use your cell phone to record your happy moment at a soccer game and record the kiddos and folks present.

MGL Chapter 272, Section 72 still in effect (but probably not enforced) says:

“No person shall stable a horse or mule on the second or any higher floor of any building, unless there are two means of exit therefrom, at opposite ends of the building, to the main or street floor, unless such building is equipped with an automatic sprinkler system.”

Other crazy laws still in existence (REALLY) in Massachusetts that state:

  • mourners at wakes may eat no more than three sandwiches,
  • snoring is prohibited unless all bedroom windows are closed and securely locked,
  • gorillas are not allowed in the backseats of cars,
  • false teeth must be removed during sexual intercourse,
  • all men must carry a rifle to church on Sundays,
  • goatees are illegal unless you first pay a public license fee to wear them, and
  • bullets may not be used as currency and “squirt guns” are illegal to be bought, sold, or used by anyone in Marlboro, Massachusetts.

Killing of a 31-Year Police Veteran & Early Release of a Convicted Felon with Body Armor

The restrictive Chicago ban on body armor was passed last month after the shooting death of a respected 31-year veteran Police Commander who was killed in the line of duty by a convicted felon wearing body armor. Commander Paul Bauer, a 31-year police veteran, was arresting a man with a pistol wearing a bullet-proof vest under a jacket. They fought and fell down a stairwell with the felon shooting Bauer in the head several times. Interestingly, the “bad guy” murderer had repeatedly been arrested and had several felony convictions involving the use of a gun dating back to the 1990s, with early releases. Sadly, Bauer recently spoke before a professional group about the lenient treatment of hardened criminals by the legal system putting the public in danger.

What are the key body armor considerations for civilian concealed carriers?

Well, there are many considerations, personal questions, and individual factors to consider and answer in getting civilian body armor. This is a personal decision for only you to make, so make it carefully since it could be a critical life-or-death decision. Here are just some general opinions to blend with your criteria and research to get you started:

  1. Do I really need body armor as a Concealed Carrier?
  2. What are the nationally-recognized standards for body armor certification? Who determines them and what are they?
  3. What are the types of body armor threats and protection levels?
  4. What are the Common Body Armor materials?
  5. How do you select the proper body armor & what are practical considerations?
  6. How do I balance comfort with concealability in body armor (tradeoffs)?
  7. What are some examples and costs for various body armor?

The Need for Body Armor

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) reports that over the past 30 years or more ballistic-resistant body armor has saved the lives of over 3,000 police officers. It works! Body armor has transitioned from a law enforcement luxury to being a vital necessity for personal protection for military members and law enforcement officers. Aren’t civilians, especially lawful concealed carriers, entitled to that same right? But, do they really need it?

Civilians generally don’t participate in advanced-planned, direct force-on-force tactical actions, so there aren’t many realistic scenarios where it would call for a concealed carrier to strap on a full tactical vest and some plates for pending deadly force confrontation. They usually don’t clear a building or initiate a first strike. So, usually, it doesn’t make practical sense as a civilian to purchase body armor…generally.

But, again, this is a very personal decision and if you find yourself living, regularly working, and playing in a rough neighborhood and area, consider the possibilities. Maybe you just want it for home defense and “bumps in the night.” But make your own need, cost-benefit decision, and tradeoffs.

National Standards and Certification for Body Armor Performance

The National Institute of Justice (NIJ) is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. It has a rating system for body armor. Generally, as you add layers of a ballistic fiber, like Aramid fiber, you add protection. The NIJ’s standard for body armor performance is the only national standard for law enforcement body armor. It is useful for me as a civilian standard as well. The standard provides five different levels for ballistic-resistant armor. The level selection key is to recognize the level’s direct relationship to the expected or anticipated level of threat likely to be faced.

The current NIJ Ballistic Resistance of Body Armor Standard is NIJ Standard 0101.06 and requires rigorous compliance testing. A proposed revision is anticipated for the end of May 2018. The 0101.06 Standard supersedes previous standards, so armor certified under those earlier standards are considered obsolete. Please reference the Standard 0101.06 directly for details.

NIJ Standard 0101.06

Body Armor Threats

Recognize that there are differences in protection from pistol threats and rifle threats. So decide what you need. Soft Aramid vests stop pistol and fragmentation threats, but it takes a rigid rifle plate to stop a rifle bullet. Ballistic armor is differentiated by types of weapons and ammunition in each potential threat situation.

For handgun body armor protection, there are Level II-A, Level II, and Level III-A levels and all stop most of pistol projectiles, in addition to 12 gauge and 00 buckshot. But, NOT ALL.

NO VEST IS EVER 100% BULLETPROOF under ALL possible circumstances.

Body Armor Vests can usually protect against these types of threats:

  • Most Pistol & Revolver Ammunition (and ’00’ Buckshot)
    • NIJ Threat Level II-A, II, and III-A – a regular 3 to 6 pound soft body armor vest
    • Level II & II-A for short-barreled handguns, e.g., 9mm & .40 S&W
    • Level III-A for long-barreled guns, e.g., .357 & .44 mag;
  • Blunt Trauma – e.g., fists, clubs, and auto steering wheel columns;
  • Knife/Edged Weapon attack – e.g., slashing (but NOT thrusting/stabbing unless special stab-resistant material);
  • FMJ Rifle rounds – NIJ Threat Level III – 1/4″ specially treated steel, 1/2″ ceramic armor plates, or 1″ Polyethylene plates; and
  • .3006 Armor-Piercing Rifle Rounds – NIJ Threat Level IV – 3/4″ thick ceramic armor plates.

Common Body Armor Thickness Protection Levels

Note: The biggest difference between Levels is the amount of blunt trauma impact protection.

  • Level II-A: generally about 4 mm thick
  • Level II: generally about 5 mm thick
  • Level III-A: generally about 7.5 – 8.5 mm thick
  • Level II-A has become somewhat rare, but is the thinnest, for comfort and concealability. Most folks opt for the extra safety margin with a Level II or Level III-A.
  • Level II is often worn by police officers. A balance between blunt trauma protection, versus cost, and thickness/concealability/comfort. Used if concealing under light clothing. Level II protects against the same types of rounds that Level II-A protects against, except that it increases the speed (velocity) at which the ammo can be fired while protecting the wearer. Level II armor is usually heavier and bulkier than Level II-A. Level II, in my opinion, is acceptable for me for carrying, but Level III-A is better.
  • Level III-A is a little thicker, stiffer, heavier and more expensive, but will stop more of the uncommon pistol threats. For example, it is tested for 9mm sub-machine-gun and .44 Magnum. Also, it gives more blunt trauma impact protection.

Level II Body Armor Vest shot with 9mm Carbine using Buffalo Bore 9mm +p+ 124 grain FMJ Flat Nose Round @ 1175 fps

Read Also: NIJ Ballistic Armor Levels Explained In Plain English

General Types of Body Armor

It is of paramount importance to select the appropriate body armor type for your need. Basically, there are three body armor types available:

  1. ballistic-resistant
  2. stab-slash resistant
  3. a combination that protects against both types of threats.

The Ballistic-Resistant Type that protects against firearms is most widely used in the U.S. by law enforcement patrol officers, while correctional officers often use stab-slash.

Body Armor Materials

The material used in construction is not the major factor for selection. As long as the vest is NIJ Certified or similarly tested by a reputable independent lab, you really do not need to be overly concerned with the ballistics. But there is one proven fiber.

I worked at Du Pont in West Virginia during my college summer years, and they make Kevlar made with Aramid fibers, a proven flexible and robust material for exceptional comfort. Honeywell also manufactures strong Polyethylene fibers called Spectra and GoldFlex, each with pros and cons.

Selecting Proper Body Armor

A very general rule of thumb in selecting the proper body armor is to choose at least the level of armor necessary to protect against your own concealed carry handgun, at a minimum. Of course, consider the likelihood of higher actual threat situations. Better to be safe than sorry.

Regardless of the selection method, always consider the NIJ standards before selecting your ballistic body armor.

Practical Selection Considerations

Heat Buildup is the number one problem for vest users. During the summer, heat is the limiting factor in vest use. No vest can really claim to be comfortable in the heat.

Comfort / Wearability is a function of the vest’s fit, coverage, and softness. The best vest for you is the one you are wearing when shot.

Freedom of Movement is a function of the vest’s thickness or bulkiness, and design and fit. If your movement is restricted, your body armor can become a liability and not an asset.

Weight affects your fatigue level after prolonged wear and your physical speed of movement. More of an issue with Rifle Plates than a pound difference in soft Body Armor protection Levels and models.

Concealability. Most importantly, you do not want to expose vulnerable body areas. Also, if an armed criminal notices your body armor, they can easily aim, or threaten, your head, hip or groin area. So, the most significant advantage of wearing a vest is concealability from criminals and discretion.

Cost. If you can’t afford it and don’t buy it, it can’t protect you. So, realistically judge what threats you face and make rational choices. Remember, 100% protection is simply not possible no matter how much you spend, but you can get about 80% of the maximum protection available if you wear body armor. Better to have some bruises and temporary pain than to be seriously injured or dead. High-quality armor costs, but you usually get what you pay for.

Comfort vs. Concealability Tradeoffs

There is always a tradeoff among more protection, comfort-wear-ability, and concealability. So, the level of protection chosen is a personal choice. Generally, it is better to get a lower protection level that you will wear consistently, than the highest protection that you don’t wear. The best vest for you is the one you are actually wearing when shot. Your very critical decision!

As far as comfort, you usually don’t notice an extra 4 or 5 pounds of weight all that much, and vests don’t restrict freedom of movement very much if fitted correctly. In the summer, heat buildup can be a problem for about all body armor vests. The panels insulate you and prevent cooling. The amount of side protection affects ventilation and comfort. But, a tradeoff. A sweat-wicking undershirt can help keep you dry and somewhat cool. Also, wearing the vest on the outside makes ventilating with outside air easier.

Level II vests are usually about .25″ thick, so just a shirt can cover it up nicely if the shirt is loose. A thin dress shirt may need a T-shirt over the vest to conceal well. Level III-A vests are usually about .33″ thick and are concealable, but tougher to stop from “printing” under light clothing. Rifle Plates are generally an extra 0.25″ to 1.0″ thick and thus require a jacket or sweater to conceal.

Body Armor Examples and Costs

Here are some Level II and Level III-A Body Armor examples and typical costs:

LEVEL II

  • Galls GH Pro X Series – $432
  • Point Blank Hi-Lite – $506
  • Armor Express Equinox – $530
  • U.S. Armor Enforcer XP – $567

LEVEL III-A

  • Galls SE LXIIIA – $500
  • Point Blank Hi-Lite – $506
  • Armor Express Revolution – $633
  • U.S. Armor Enforcer XP – $633

Conclusion

Body armor has proven to be effective for law enforcement and military uses. Choosing to use body armor as a civilian is a very personal decision, and first, you must decide how you will use it, your level of potential threat given your usual environment, and if you really need it.

Use your body armor for legal purposes only and know if it is legal to own and use in your state and/or jurisdiction. Learn the legalities for yourself in your state and area.

Cost is a factor, but this concerns your life. So are comfort, weight, and concealability among other factors. It is important to understand the five levels of ballistic-resistant armor, types, materials, and practical selection considerations and tradeoffs.

Remember, NO BODY ARMOR VEST IS 100% BULLETPROOF AGAINST ALL POSSIBLE CIRCUMSTANCES. Very carefully consider these decisions. Success in making your decisions!

SAFETY FIRST!

Photos by Author and as marked. Thanks to Escambia County Sheriff’s Office, Florida (Captain Greer) and Pensacola Police Department, Florida (Sergeant Fox) for their input.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2018 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].