Biting the Bullet: Should Bulletproof Vests be Legalised?

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The spate of recent shootings across New South Wales has re-ignited debate about Australia’s tough weapons restrictions.

Some have advocated a more liberal approach to gun laws, going as far to say that if staff in the Lindt café siege had a gun, they may have prevented the tragic attack by shooting and killing the gunman.

While this logic has been rejected by the overwhelming majority of Australians – you might be forgiven for wondering what you can do to greater protect yourself from physical harm in this day and age.

If you do feel directly threatened, one solution might be to wear a bulletproof vest or some other form of body armour that protects against violent attacks; just like many police wear.

Bulletproof vests are a form of body armour made from strong, specially developed fibres, as well as other components such as metal or ceramic plates, which protect the wearer from bullets, shrapnel and explosives fragments.

But before you rush out and buy a bulletproof vest, take a closer look at the law.

In New South Wales, bulletproof vests are (somewhat ironically) classified as prohibited weapons under Schedule 1 of the Weapons Prohibition Act 1998.

This means that it is illegal to use or possess a bulletproof vest without a valid permit.

If you are alleged to have used or possessed a bulletproof vest without a permit, you could face a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment in the District Court, or 2 years if the matter stays in the Local Court.

Prohibited weapons permits are notoriously difficult to obtain.

The applicant must demonstrate a ‘genuine reason,’ such as a recreational, sporting, scientific or animal management purpose before a permit will be issued by the authorities.

Of course, this means that persons like police are exempt from these prohibitions, and may wear bulletproof vests for law enforcement purposes.

But for the average Joe Bloggs, owning a bulletproof vest is extremely difficult.

To many, this might simply seem illogical – bulletproof vests don’t hurt anybody, so why should they be illegal?

Surely people who are at risk of harm, or who have been threatened, should be able to wear vests to protect themselves.

So, why are bulletproof vests illegal?

The basis for this seemingly nonsensical law is the danger that criminals may come into possession of bulletproof vests, and use them to protect themselves or avoid arrest when committing crimes.

For instance, had the Sydney siege gunman Man Haron Monis been in possession of a bulletproof vest, it may have been more difficult for police to apprehend him.

There is, however, one obvious problem with that argument, and it can be illustrated by examining the problems with our current gun laws.

The problem is that simply making something illegal does not necessarily make that thing inaccessible.

Firearms are illegal in New South Wales unless you have a valid firearms licence, yet this did not stop Man Haron Monis from obtaining a gun – even though he had come to the attention of authorities on several prior occasions.

Had he wanted to, there is little doubt that Monis might also have been able to get his hands on a bulletproof vest.

However, this is not to say that guns should be legalised – firearms, of course, are dangerous in the wrong hands and have the potential to cause serious harm to other people.

On the other hand, it is difficult to argue that bulletproof vests pose any danger to other people – on the contrary, they offer a form of protection against violent attacks.

Another argument that is sometimes advanced in support of our existing weapons laws is the classic, yet somewhat naïve maxim, ‘if you’ve done nothing wrong, you have nothing to fear.’

In other words, we shouldn’t feel the necessity to protect ourselves if we are merely innocent citizens, because there is nothing out there to harm us.

This argument is easy to dismiss.

Innocent people find themselves victims of violent attacks every day – the victims of the Sydney siege are obvious examples of this.

Even National Parks staff have requested access to bulletproof vests after concerns were raised about wildlife hunters’ stray bullets potentially hitting them.

This also raises concerns about members of the public who visit these parks and who may find themselves the victim of a misguided bullet.

And for people who have received violent threats against themselves or their families, the need for protection is even more pressing.

Well-known Sydney nightclub owner John Ibrahim is no stranger to these kinds of threats.

His brother Michael was recently shot in the Sydney CBD on a Sunday evening, suffering a wound to his shoulder.

His other brothers, Sam and Fadi, have also found themselves the subjects of shootings in recent years.

Yet despite this pattern of targeted violence towards members of the Ibrahim family, they have no legal means of protecting themselves from further attacks.

To some, it seems that in NSW only police are allowed to protect themselves from anything.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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