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New York, Pennsylvania consider body armor restrictions after slayings

Debra Erdley
| Monday, April 20, 2009

Shooting rampages in Pennsylvania and New York could become a rallying point for state lawmakers to restrict sales of body armor.

In both cases — the April 3 shooting rampage that claimed 13 lives in a Binghamton immigration center and the April 4 slayings of three Pittsburgh police officers answering a domestic call — heavily armed men braced themselves for gunfights with bullet-resistant vests.

It never came to that in Binghamton. Jiverly Wong, 41, a Vietnamese immigrant, took his own life after killing 13 unarmed civilians, authorities said.

But in Pittsburgh, police Chief Nate Harper said alleged gunman Richard Poplawski, 22, wore body armor that deflected at least two shots to his chest during a deadly assault on officers that lasted nearly four hours.

Federal law bars people convicted of violent felonies from purchasing body armor. In Pennsylvania and most other states, it is against the law to wear such armor while committing a crime.

The vests Jiverly and Poplawski wore are readily available to the public. Although most Pittsburgh area retailers no longer carry body armor — and two who do sell only to police — online seller eBay offers scores of vests costing $50 to $200.

In New York, Assemblyman David Koon of Rochester introduced legislation in January to restrict the sale of body armor to law enforcement officers. Koon said the shootings in Pittsburgh and Binghamton illustrate the dangers posed to law enforcement officers when body armor gets into the hands of those bent on violence.

"Evidence suggests that more and more drug dealers, gang members and professional criminals are purchasing and utilizing body armor," he said.

Officer Rob Harrison, range master at the Pittsburgh Police Academy and an officer since 1985, said training police to prepare for that possibility has become crucial.

"More and more people are found wearing body armor, and depending on age and condition, it can withstand bullets from a variety of handguns," Harrison said.

But Kim Stolfer of MacDonald, a National Rifle Association firearms training counselor, said private citizens ranging from pizza deliverymen to children who attend violence-plagued schools rely on the vests for protection.

"Do we take that away from them, or do we have government do its job?" Stolfer said.

Rep. Tom Caltigirone, D-Reading, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said recent events appear to illustrate weakness in the law regarding the sale of body armor.

"What purpose does body armor serve outside of law enforcement• There may be a bill," Caltigirone said.

Lee Guelff would be delighted to see such a bill become law.

The California advertising executive spent years fighting to restrict the purchase of body armor after his brother Jim, a San Francisco police officer, was killed in 1994 by a carjacker outfitted in a high-quality vest and bulletproof helmet.

"He shot the guy several times and was in the process of reloading when the guy shot him in the head," Guelff said.

In 2002, Congress agreed to bar violent felons from buying body armor.

Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said unlimited access to handguns and body armor are intertwined issues that should be addressed.

"If the Philadelphia delegation and the Allegheny County delegation got together and said, 'We're not doing anything else until you pass some sensible gun laws,' if both of those delegations had the guts to do it, they could bring state government to a standstill until reasonable gun laws were passed," the governor said.

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