School Safety: Questioning Soft Body Armor

School safety is perpetually in the news. Over the last year or so, we’ve seen an increasing number of news stories heralding soft body armor. These usually include items such as “bulletproof hoodies,” backpacks, or other bullet-resistant personal protection items for school children. Some of these pieces have been fairly skeptical—even quite critical.

For example, Melissa Chan wrote in the December 2019 print edition of TIME magazine:

“There’s no known case of bullet-resistant items saving students from shooting—none of the industry leaders who spoke with Time could say the case—and critics of the industry say the only beneficiaries of these so-called security measures are the people making money off them.”

That said, on balance, most coverage has been fairly complimentary.

What all of this news coverage lacks is a detailed look at the strengths and limitations of soft body armor. Soft body armor (i.e., “bulletproof vests”) are undeniably lifesavers, with a solid track record in the field. That said, they’re designed for fairly specific applications. They do not magically stop all bullets or prevent all damage. And, most concerning, they may perform worst when faced with the threats most common in a school shooting.

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Fundamentals of Soft Body Armor and School Safety

First and foremost, nothing is truly 100% bulletproof. With enough bullets and enough time, every barrier fails. Although people say “bulletproof vest” and “bulletproof hoodie,” these are more accurately called “bullet-resistant soft body armor.”

Soft body armor has interwoven layers of tough synthetic fibers to catch bullets. It’s similar to how the netting around a batting cage stops baseballs.

Experts estimate that about 80% of all firearm murders are committed using handguns. As a result, people facing generalized threats (like politicians, celebrities, and police officers) often opt to wear a “bulletproof vests” designed to stop all sorts of rounds. The “gold standard” for this are garments rated “NIJ IIIA.” These are designed to stop even the largest pistol calibers, like the .44 Magnum.

Being shot with a .44 Mag is a terrifying prospect: This is a very large bullet designed to pack a tremendous amount of power. Hunters use .44 Magnums to kill elk and grizzly bears. Even polar bears—which weigh over 1,000 pounds and stand 10 feet tall when reared up on their hind legs—can be taken down with a .44 Mag.

Reassuringly, much of the consumer-grade soft body armor on the market—including the bulletproof hoodies seen on TV—meets NIJ IIIA standards. In fact, all of these garments rely on the exact same material as the bullet-resistant fiberglass that reinforces school walls.

But it’s important to bear in mind that although these are made of the same material, they behave very differently in the field. Soft body armor will stop many bullets. But it can never stop the force of the bullets’ impact—and is powerless against some key school safety threats.

A Brief Analysis of School Safety and Shooting Threats, 1982–2019

As we’ve already mentioned, in most shootings, the attacker uses a handgun. But in mass shootings, pistols are used only about 60% of the time. The other 40% involve long-guns, usually rifles with high-capacity magazines. School attackers are even more likely to chose more powerful firearms: In over 67% of school shootings since 1982, the perpetrator has had one or more long guns (based on analysis of this publicly available data set).

This is a big deal if you’re trying to increase school safety. Soft body armor is entirely ineffective against tactical and “assault rifles” like those used in nearly 70% of school attacks. Such rifles fire a relatively small bullet at an extremely high velocity. The most popular bullet sizes for tactical rifles are 7.62mm or 5.56mm. The former is about the size of the bullets used by many deer hunters, while the latter is just a little bigger than a .22 bullet. These bullets are shaped to enhance penetration, and the high velocity imparts an enormous amount of energy. Here you can see an assault rifle, fired from 75 feet away, shoot through several logs and then still penetrate military-issue IIIA body armor:

In fact, some pistol calibers can penetrate NIJ IIIA body armor when fired from a longer barrel—even though these vests are optimized to stop these very rounds. This is because a longer rifle barrel can more efficiently harness and focus the bullet’s energy. Under the right circumstances, even some .22 rifle ammo can penetrate soft body armor. (Please note that, while .22 rifles are generally inexpensive and popular—especially for new and young shooters—the video linked above shows a rifle firing more powerful .22 Magnum ammunition. Nonetheless, it highlights how even a good vest can fail when faced with a threat outside of its design parameters.)

Potential Injuries—Even When the Body Armor Performs Perfectly

The following video created by Paul Harrell—a decorated military veteran and firearms instructor—covers the strengths and weaknesses of body armor exhaustively, and graphically:

His point is well taken: In contrast to a rigid barrier, soft body armor stops bullets—but cannot meaningfully dissipate a bullet’s momentum.

When reviewing testing certificates for consumer-grade soft body armor (available on the manufacturers’ websites), you’ll find that labs have confirmed that their garments indeed stop .44 Magnum bullets. That’s amazing material performance, and no doubt saves lives. But reading the results in detail, and you’ll see that the underlying clay “witness panel” (used to simulate the body of the wearer inside the garment) deforms an average of 1.25 inches in these tests, due to the impact of the slugs. As Harrell demonstrates, that deformation can break ribs and cause internal bleeding.

Additionally, news stories often imply that the hood on a “bulletproof hoodie” offers meaningful protection from bullets. The average adult skull is 7mm thick. The maximum gap between the interior of the skull and the brain is just 7mm, too. That adds up to just half an inch. A 1.25-inch deformation of the skull could easily prove fatal.

Body Armor Often Out-Performs Its Spec—But that Doesn’t Translate to Survival

Jumping to the three-minute 30-second mark in this video is especially instructive. Here Harrell shoots the body armor with a shotgun. This body armor is not rated to stop such rounds—but it does so admirably!

Still, look at the outcome: The bullet was stopped, but the ribs were shattered and the simulated lungs shredded. The person wearing that vest would almost certainly be dead from the blunt injuries.

It’s important to note that the gun Harrell is shooting in this video is in no way exotic. This isn’t a tactical or assault rifle, it wasn’t designed for warfare or made to defeat body armor. It’s a 12-gauge shotgun. These can be purchased at any hunting store in America for about $200. He’s firing extremely common hunting ammo. Shotguns are used in a vanishingly small portion of crimes in the U.S. That said, this style of gun is very popular in mass shootings. Publicly available data indicates that 13% of all mass shooters—and 40% of all school shooters—carry shotguns.

Holistic Planning to Increase Everyone’s Safety.

Michael Dorn is the executive director of Safe Havens International. He is one of the most experienced, widely published, and highly respected school safety experts in the world. Dorn has long advocated for broad shifts schools can make to increase everyone’s safety and security (often at low or no cost). Dorn is especially worried that a child will take the inaccurate term “bulletproof vest” at face value. In December he told TIME magazine, “while bulletproof products make some consumers feel safer, they could be having the opposite effect. A focus on the armor could result in death because people don’t focus instead on things they need to do like lock a door.”

Total Security Solutions CEO Jim Richards shares such concerns. “Personal protection items, they have a narrow set of applications and were designed for a certain function. Expecting parents to adopt this solution feels like putting 900 band-aids on 900 people. It’s always better to address core risks and threats. Could there be one person who has this sort of personal protection item, and they happen to be the right distance from a shooter using the right caliber under the right conditions? Yeah, it could definitely happen. But that’s a lot of things that have to be just right. It protects you from a narrow threat—and only if you bought the item and have it with you. You’re probably better off improving everyone’s safety in one pass by investing in your building: Control your entrances, harden your targets, and most importantly, have proper safety procedures and protocols in place.”

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