Is It Illegal to Own a Bulletproof Vest?

Understand how state and federal laws on bulletproof vests, or body armor, apply to private citizens.

By , Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 12/06/2022

A bulletproof vest, or body armor, is typically worn over the torso to protect the body from small-arms fire and light shrapnel from explosive devices. These vests are often worn by the military, law enforcement officials, and hostage negotiators in situations where a suspect may have a firearm or other destructive device. Private citizens, such as hunters, gun store owners, and convenience store clerks, also use them. And so do criminals, hence this article.

In this article, we review federal and state laws that regulate the possession and use of bulletproof vests (body armor) by private citizens. We use the terms "bulletproof vest" and "body armor" interchangeably. Most laws use the term "body armor."

Are Bulletproof Vests Legal?

The answer to this question depends on your state laws, your criminal history (do you have any criminal convictions), and your intent in possessing or using the vest. Federal law may also come into play.

In most states, it's legal to possess, buy, or wear a bulletproof vest as long as you've never been convicted of a crime or felony and don't intend to use the vest while committing a crime. One key exception is New York, which makes it illegal for any person who's not working in an "eligible profession" to buy or take possession of a body vest. Eligible professions include peace officers and persons in military service. (N.Y. Penal Code § 270.21 (2022).)

Federal law prohibits "violent felons"—those with prior felony convictions for violent crimes—from possessing, owning, or purchasing body armor.

Is It Legal to Wear Body Armor in Public?

Legally owning or possessing a bulletproof vest or body armor doesn't necessarily mean you can wear it anywhere you want. A few states prohibit wearing bulletproof vests in certain places or while in possession of a weapon. For instance, Louisiana makes it a crime to wear or possess body armor on school property, at school-sponsored events, or in firearm-free zones (with exceptions for law enforcement and other approved officials). Illinois makes it a crime to wear body armor while in possession of a dangerous weapon.

In addition to state and federal laws, you should check local regulations (such as city ordinances) and security regulations for prohibited items before donning a vest in public.

(720 I.L.C.S. § 5/33f-2; La. Rev. Stat. § 14:95.9 (2022).)

State Laws Regulating Possession or Use of Bulletproof Vests

While laws vary, most states' prohibitions on possessing, buying, or using (wearing) a bulletproof vest apply in the following situations:

  • the individual has been convicted of any crime, a felony, or a crime of violence, or
  • the individual wears the vest while committing, or attempting to commit, a crime or felony.

Common Restrictions and Prohibitions

You'll want to check out the specifics in your state, but here are a few examples of how the above situations work in law.

Prior convictions. Some states make it a crime for any person with a prior "felony" conviction to possess, buy, or use body armor. In other states, the prohibition might apply to individuals who have a prior conviction for any crime (felonies and misdemeanors), only crimes of violence (usually defined by law), or only those crimes listed in the statute.

While committing a crime. The same differences hold true for state laws that prohibit wearing body armor while committing or attempting to commit a "crime." Some laws identify specific crimes (such as robbery, murder, and burglary), while others make it a violation only if the crime committed while wearing the vest is a felony or a violent crime (felony or misdemeanor).

State Penalties for Illegal Possession or Use of Bulletproof Vests

The penalties among states vary. Some states make it a separate crime—a felony or misdemeanor—for illegal possession or use of body armor by a prohibited person or while committing a crime.

In other states, if the violation involves wearing body armor in the commission of the crime, the penalty for the underlying crime increases. For instance, a law might increase the felony class for armed robbery from a class 2 to a class 1 felony if the suspect wore a bulletproof vest during the robbery. Other ways a state law can increase penalties for the underlying offense are by imposing a mandatory minimum sentence or tacking additional years onto the sentence.

Federal Laws Regulating Body Armor

Federal law makes it illegal for anyone who's been convicted of a felony crime of violence (state or federal) to purchase, own, or possess body armor (except in cases where it's necessary for a job and approved by the employer). A "crime of violence" is any felony that involves the use, attempted use, or threat of physical force against another person or property. A person convicted of illegally purchasing, owning, or possessing body armor faces up to three years in federal prison. (18 U.S.C. §§ 924, 931 (2022).)

Another federal law provides a sentencing enhancement for use of a vest during the commission of a federal crime of violence or a federal drug-trafficking crime. This provision applies to sentencing under the federal sentencing guidelines. (34 U.S.C. § 10534 (2022).)

Why Can't Felons Own Body Armor or Bulletproof Vests?

The rationale for prohibiting many felons from possessing body armor or bulletproof vests is similar to that of prohibiting felons from possessing firearms. These laws aim to protect public and officer safety by keeping "weapons" away from those who've shown they're capable of committing a crime.

Take the federal sentencing enhancement law, for example. It states: "Congress finds that (1) nationally, police officers and ordinary citizens are facing increased danger as criminals use more deadly weaponry, body armor, and other sophisticated assault gear...." (34 U.S.C. § 10534 (2022) (emphasis added).)

While one can argue body armor, in and of itself, isn't "assault gear" or "weaponry," as you can see from the discussion of state law above, the federal law's reasoning tends to prevail at the state level as well.

Talk to a Lawyer

If you're facing criminal charges relating to the possession or use of body armor, contact a criminal defense attorney right away. For federal charges, you'll want to make sure you contact an attorney who practices in federal court and defends these types of cases.

You might also want to talk to an attorney for more information on your state's laws or restrictions on buying or wearing a bulletproof vest.

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