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Rubber bullets can seriously mess you up

The dangers of “nonlethal” police weapons — like rubber bullets, flash-bang grenades, and tear gas — explained.

A police officer aims a rubber bullet gun at demonstrators at a Black Lives Matter protest in Long Beach, California, on May 31.
Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

Around the country, police and law enforcement agents are responding to the protests against police brutality with ... brutality.

Standard crowd-control weapons — including rubber bullets, chemical irritants, flash-bang grenades, and contraptions that combine aspects of all three — are being deployed against protesters and the journalists covering them to disperse crowds, sometimes seemingly unprovoked, and against peaceful protesters.

While these riot-control weapons are said to be “nonlethal” or “less lethal” by police and their manufacturers, they can still cause significant harm. In some cases, they can kill or cause lasting disability.

“These weapons are supposed to be used as a last resort, if there’s really an uncontrollable level of violence that threatens public safety,” Rohini Haar, an emergency room physician who has studied the impact of crowd-control weapons, tells Vox. “Without that level, that threshold, the use of weapons against unarmed civilians is pretty unjustified.”

As the protests percolate throughout the country, there have been many reports of serious injuries due to police using riot-control weapons. And health experts and doctors worry that there could be more injuries because of the weapons’ widespread use. Here are three of the more common crowd-control weapons being used on protesters. Let’s walk through them.

Rubber bullets are bullets. Bullets can kill.

Rubber bullets are not always made out of rubber. Technically, they are called “kinetic impact projectiles.” Some are made out of hardened foam or plastic. Others contain a metal core. Some are more like beanbags shot out of a rifle. Wooden bullets also are grouped into this category, and they are also dangerous and have been used against protesters in recent days.

Regardless of their composition, these projectiles are shot out of guns at speeds comparable to that of a typical bullet, and when they hit their target, they can maim, blind, or even kill. The rubber bullets are meant to be “nonlethal” or “less lethal” and used in crowd control. But research shows how brutal these bullets can be.

“It sounds like a Nerf gun or something, but it’s definitely much more dangerous than that,” Haar says. “From our research, we find that there’s really no safe way to use rubber bullets.”

In 2017, Haar, along with the advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations, published a review paper in the BMJ looking at the impact these bullets can have on the human body. They concluded that “these weapons have the potential to cause severe injuries and death.”

The group found 26 studies on the use of rubber bullets around the world, documenting a total of 1,984 injuries. Fifteen percent of the injuries resulted in permanent disability; 3 percent resulted in death. When the injuries were to the eyes, they overwhelmingly (84.2 percent) resulted in blindness.

These weapons can also cause internal bleeding in the abdominal region, concussions, injuries to the head and neck, and skin and soft-tissue damage. Furthermore, these weapons are unwieldy and hard to aim at specific targets.

“At short range, they come out of the gun as fast as a bullet,” Haar says. “And so they can break bones. They can fracture skulls. If they hit the face, they can cause permanent damage and disability. At long distances, they ricochet, they have unpredicted trajectories, they bounce, and they’re quite indiscriminate. So they can’t possibly target either an individual or a safe body part of an individual.”

The BMJ paper may suffer from publication and selection bias and may overrepresent the most dramatic or notable injuries, the authors note. Regardless, it’s enough to know that these life-scarring impacts can occur with rubber bullets, and they’re being used against many citizens of our country in recent days.

“Police are not required to document their use of rubber bullets, so there is no national data to show how often they’re used,” USA Today reports. But rubber bullet injuries have been piling up during the protests.

A photojournalist reported being blinded in one eye after being hit by a rubber bullet in Minneapolis. In Los Angeles, a reporter posted pictures of the rubber bullet injury on his neck. A grandmother in La Mesa, California, was reportedly shot between the eyes. A teen in Sacramento, California, was shot in the face with a rubber bullet. His family reports he’ll need jaw surgery.

Flash-bangs, a.k.a. stun grenades, can burn and damage hearing

Rubber bullets are hardly the only problematic “nonlethal” weapon used against protesters. Flash-bang grenades, or stun grenades, are another tool being deployed by police that explode with a bright light and incredibly loud sound to get people to scatter from an area. How loud? 160 to 180 decibels, according to Physicians for Human Rights.

These noise levels are “not safe for any period of time” according to the American Speech-Language Hearing Association. They can damage the eardrums and cause temporary deafness. The light can temporarily blind a person. Pieces of the grenade may fly off as shrapnel, injuring a person. These grenades can also burn people at close range. The North Carolina Supreme Court has even declared them a weapon of “mass death and destruction.”

There’s less research on other physical harms of flash-bangs. But in 2015, a ProPublica investigation found at least 50 Americans had been killed or maimed by them since the year 2000 and that they are particularly dangerous when used indoors. “That is likely a fraction of the total since there are few records kept on flash-bang deployment,” ProPublica noted. “When these modified hand grenades explode on the human body, they can cause severe injury or death. The flash powder burns hotter than lava.”

Here, Physicians for Human Rights sums up the damage these weapons can do.

Police lobbed flash-bangs into a crowd of protesters in Seattle, as you can see below. (Elsewhere in Seattle, an NBC News reporter was hit directly by one.) The use of flash-bangs was also reported in Virginia, Colorado, and Washington, DC.

Tear gas is illegal in warfare, yet it can be used by police

Finally, there’s tear gas, or chemical irritants that affect the eyes, nose, mouth, lungs, and skin (there are several types of chemicals that fall under the “tear gas” category). These chemicals are banned internationally in warfare, yet they are still legal for domestic police forces — including in the US — to use to disperse crowds.

They cause immediate irritation to the eyes and lungs, but their long-term effects are less well understood.

“It’s still questionable what kinds of respiratory damage tear gas does,” Anna Feigenbaum, a journalism professor and the author of a book on the history of tear gas, told Vox’s Jen Kirby.

“We don’t really know what its impacts are in terms of different kinds of asthma and lung disease,” she continued. “What we do know is that for people who have any kind of preconditions, it’s incredibly dangerous for them to be in spaces that are tear-gassed. For anyone who’s very young or very old, it has increased dangers.”

Increasingly, Haar says, elements of different crowd-control weapons are mixed together. Tear gas can be put inside a projectile. Flash-bang grenades can also disperse chemical irritants. “All of those are also deeply concerning,” Haar says. A tear gas canister could injure someone as a rubber bullet would, if fired as a projectile. “Anything that’s a projectile that’s fired into a crowd can cause trauma,” she says. “So whether that’s a canister of tear gas, a stun grenade, or rubber bullets.”

On Wednesday morning, a person in Washington, DC, found an unexploded flash-bang grenade.

This particular model, according to the manufacturer’s website, “is a maximum effect device that delivers four stimuli for psychological and physiological effects: rubber pellets, light, sound, and OC,” i.e., pepper spray.

It’s worth noting, too, that these chemicals irritate the lungs. Meanwhile, we’re in the midst of a respiratory disease pandemic. The coughing that results from tear gas could spread Covid-19 in a protest area.

For Haar, the proliferation of these crowd-control weapons is part of the story of police brutality. “I strongly feel that the current reckoning with police violence should include discussion of how demonstrations and protests are met,” she says.

These weapons are often called nonlethal. “But these weapons are as dangerous as anything else that’s a weapon,” she says. “Consider them as dangerous weapons to be used only as a last resort.”