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What “Less Lethal” Weapons Actually Do

During the recent protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, police forces across the country have used weapons categorized as “less lethal” to disperse crowds and subdue individuals. But despite their label, these tools can still overstep the inherent limitations of flesh and bone. Devices that sound innocuous—rubber bullets, tear gas—are designed to quickly change human behavior through force and chemistry. And they are sold as an alternative to the kind of force that immediately kills. Such weapons are not harmless, however.

For starters, they are often used as a prelude to more severe measures, notes Stuart Schrader, an assistant research scientist in sociology at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book Badges without Borders. “One of the reasons it’s a complete misnomer to call [a weapon] ‘nonlethal ’ or ‘less lethal’ [is] if it ’s being used to force people into the [attack range] of cops with batons—or soldiers with rifles,” he says. “In only the most strict technical reading could you call that ‘less lethal ’ or ‘nonlethal.’” And in addition to their use in combination with lethal weapons, these tools can still cause serious injury and death on their own.

Such devices fall roughly into three categories: There are blunt-force weapons, which are designed to hurt people with a physical impact, and chemical agents, which are meant to irritate or incapacitate. A third group comprises specialized technologies ranging from the electric shocks of handheld Tasers to weaponized sound waves.

Blunt Use of Force

Police commonly carry handheld implements—such as batons and shields—that can be employed to injure people. During intense protests, a flashier item has long seen widespread use: metal projectiles encased in rubber, euphemistically termed rubber bullets. From their earliest uses, these bullets have a history of causing lasting injury. While officially designated as rounds that can be fired at the ground to then bounce into people ’s legs, the rubber-encased projectiles often directly hit skulls, chests or eyes. In a 2009 study, researchers at Wayne State University found rubber bullets can hit with a force greater than 3,500 newtons—more than twice as hard as being punched in the side of the head by a professional boxer—which was enough to fracture cadaver skulls.

Militaries and police have employed rubber bullets in many situations, beginning in Northern Irelan
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