The New Menace Is Mass Murderers In SWAT Gear

Science, technology, and life.
July 23 2012 9:09 AM

Armored and Dangerous

The scariest innovation in the Aurora mass shooting isn’t guns or ammo. It’s SWAT gear.

Armored and dangerous.

Eric Bechtold/Getty Images

James Holmes, the alleged perpetrator of Friday’s movie-theater massacre in Aurora, Col., was well-armed. He had an assault rifle with a 100-round magazine. He had a 12-gauge shotgun and two semiautomatic pistols. He had gas canisters to confuse the moviegoers, and an apartment full of explosives to kill police.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

But that wasn’t the scariest thing about him. Mass murderers are generally well-armed. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the kids who gunned down 12 high-school students and a teacher in Columbine, Col., in 1999, had two shotguns, a semiautomatic pistol, a carbine rifle, and a bag full of bombs. Seung-Hui Cho, the guy who murdered 32 people at Virginia Tech in 2007, had two semiautomatic handguns, 19 magazines, and nearly 400 rounds. Nidal Hasan, the 2009 Fort Hood shooter, used a semiautomatic pistol with a high-capacity magazine to kill 13 victims and wound 43 more. Jared Loughner, the loser who snuffed six people and shot 19 others last year in Tucson, Ariz., didn’t stop firing till the 33-round clip in his Glock ran out.

What distinguished Holmes wasn’t his offense. It was his defense. At Columbine, Harris and Klebold did their damage in T-shirts and cargo pants. Cho and Loughner wore sweatshirts. Hasan was gunned down in his Army uniform.

Holmes’ outfit blew these jokers away. He wore a ballistic helmet, a ballistic vest, ballistic leggings, a throat protector, a groin protector, and tactical gloves. He was so well equipped that if anyone in that theater had tried what the National Rifle Association recommends—drawing a firearm to stop the carnage—that person would have been dead meat. Holmes didn’t just kill a dozen people. He killed the NRA’s answer to gun violence.

Last year, after the tragedy in Tucson, the NRA’s CEO, Wayne LaPierre, accused gun-control advocates of hyping

sensational events that capture national attention and drive their agenda, like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, and Tucson. … What the media won’t admit is that in each of those tragedies, the mass killers all had the same decisive advantage: Government Gun Free Zones and anti-self-defense laws that protected the safety of no one except the killers and condemned the victims to death without so much as a prayer. That’s right: Our own policies gave more protection to the killers than to the innocent. Government Gun Free Zones have become the hunting ground of evil, deranged monsters.

Instead of gun control, LaPierre proposed the opposite:

The best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. And just knowing there’s a good guy with a gun around—a cop, a guard, a soldier, and yes, a law abiding citizen with a gun—makes us feel safer because we are safer. That’s why we need more freedom and a lot less government. That’s why our Second Amendment rights should be expanded, not diminished. And that’s why, right here in this hall today, I call on Congress and every state legislature to empower the American people to ensure their own security by enacting legislation to grant all law-abiding Americans the right to carry a firearm for personal protection.

Some 40 states, including Colorado, have taken that advice. They authorize the issuance of concealed-weapons permits to anyone unencumbered by a felony conviction, a protective court order, or a disqualifying mental illness. They think arming good guys will deter or defeat bad guys.

But really bad guys—guys capable of planning a serious rampage—aren’t stupid. If you want to take your time murdering a theater full of people, the prospect of some would-be hero drawing a weapon is no problem. Just go to the U.S. Justice Department’s body armor standards page, where you’ll find a list of 69 companies that sell government-certified bullet-stopping gear. The list includes phone numbers, addresses, and URLs.

If those places won’t sell you what you need, try eBay. A search for “bulletproof vest” turns up more than 1,500 items. The high-end vests cost $800, but you can find cheaper government-certified versions—some of them recycled from police use—for less than $100. A search for “ballistic helmet” identifies 140 options, ranging from $1,800 to $50. Holmes chose TacticalGear.com, where you can get armored plates for $220, armor- and plate-carrying vests for $200 to $300, and a ballistic helmet for $435. That’s where he bought an assault vest three weeks ago.

Essentially, Holmes has called the NRA’s bluff. It may be true that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. But the best way to stop a good guy with a gun is a bad guy with body armor. And judging from Holmes' vest receipt, he wasn't even buying the serious stuff.

The NRA bases its good-guy approach on a well-substantiated military doctrine: deterrence. By arming myself with a weapon that can hurt you, I discourage you from attacking me. For many years, this doctrine averted war between the United States and the Soviet Union. Each side feared mutually assured destruction. What broke the deadlock wasn’t a weapon. It was a shield: strategic missile defense. The Soviets understood that a system capable of shooting down their nuclear missiles would, by removing their power to deter us, free us to attack. The best offense, it turns out, is a good defense.

That’s what Holmes figured out. Defense, not offense, is the next stage of the gun-violence arms race. Equipping citizens with concealed weapons doesn’t stop bad guys. It just pushes them to the next level. The next level is body armor. And unlike missile defense, which has proved to be complicated and disappointing, body armor is relatively simple.

What’s your answer to this technology? Armor-piercing bullets? Sorry. The NRA, in defense of these bullets, noted 12 years ago that “no law enforcement officer has ever been killed or even injured because an armor piercing bullet penetrated a bullet-resistant vest.” A well-prepared killer just needs the right vest. The key, according to the Justice Department’s site, is to buy “Type IV flexible armor,” which is certified to stop .30-caliber armor-piercing bullets fired at a velocity of 878 meters per second. The site offers contact information for 24 suppliers of Type IV armor and includes URLs for nine of them. I found the options somewhat overwhelming, so I went to Amazon.com, where it took me less than two minutes to find a Type IV plate for $200 and add it to my cart.

Do you want to restrict the sale of body armor? Good luck. In a country that won’t even maintain a ban on assault weapons, what are your chances of blocking access to products that save lives? With guns, as with nukes, it’s a lot harder to make a case against defensive technology than against offensive technology. That’s why not a single state prohibits the purchase of body armor, unless you’re a convicted felon. The toughest law I could find is in Connecticut, where you have to show up in person to complete the sale.

Like the NRA, I’m skeptical that gun laws will stop people like Holmes. The bombs he rigged up in his apartment are pretty good evidence that if he hadn’t gotten his hands on rifles and pistols, he’d have found another way to turn his victims into hamburger. But what if arming the good guys doesn’t work either? What if an Internet full of gas masks and bulletproof vests has plunged us over our heads in an arms race with psychopaths? I wish I could tell you there’s a way out. But like all those poor souls who perished in Aurora, I don’t know how this movie ends.

William Saletan's latest short takes on the news, via Twitter:

Latest Twitter Updates
    Follow William Saletan on Twitter.

      Slate Plus
    Slate Picks
    Dec. 19 2014 4:15 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? Staff writer Lily Hay Newman shares what stories intrigued her at the magazine this week.