Crowd control projectiles used by police at the recent anti-racism protests, like rubber bullets, are thought of as a safer alternative to actual firearms. But the truth is that even non lethal or less lethal weapons like these can cause injuries, including severe ones and, in some cases, even death.
Just in the recent protests we’ve seen journalists and protestors walk away with horrible bruises and permanent eye injuries after being hit with less lethal weapons. So, what are these projectiles actually made of? And when—if ever—should they be used?
What actually are “rubber bullets”?
First, know that what we colloquially call “rubber bullets” could refer to any of a wide variety of kinetic impact projectiles that are being used, Cynthia Bir, Ph.D., a professor of biomedical engineering at Wayne State University who studies injuries associated with less lethal weapons, tells SELF. “They all get called rubber bullets,” she says, “[but] that name doesn’t accurately describe 90 percent of the rounds that are being deployed.”
There’s been a fair amount of innovation over the past 20 years in the world of less lethal rounds, Bir says, noting that the industry has moved away from the term “non-lethal.” In the context of the current protests, law enforcement is most commonly using 40mm sponge rounds, she says, which are meant to diffuse the force of impact across a wide surface area for minimal injury. Other munitions that police may be using right now include things like rubber pellets, wood rounds, and bean bag rounds.
Although all of these were designed to do the same thing—gain control without lethal force or permanent injury—they aren’t necessarily interchangeable.
How dangerous are less lethal rounds like these?
Weapons like these were designed to be used in situations where lethal force wasn’t appropriate, but where police needed to achieve “compliance,” Bir says. They were not designed to be harmless. And the potential any weapon has for injury depends not only on what it is, but also how it’s used—including these less lethal rounds.
The most common injuries associated with rounds like these, which are not meant to be aimed at the head, are bruises, abrasions, and lacerations. But if a projectile hits you in a more vulnerable area—like the ribs, the eyes, or the head—that can cause a more serious injury. Getting hit in the face in particular can present problems because the bones of the face, especially those around the eye, tend to be very fragile, Bir says.
These weapons can also cause bone fractures, concussions and brain injuries, and bruising to the lungs, heart, and other internal organs, according to a report from the Physicians for Human Rights. And, in the worst case scenario, these weapons can cause deaths.
In fact, we’ve seen people with severe eye injuries after being hit with law enforcement less lethal weapons at recent protests. For instance, photographer Linda Torado was blinded after getting hit with a foam bullet.
One issue is that less lethal projectiles are more difficult to aim accurately than a normal gun, Bir says, because they fly through the air so much slower than a bullet. Law enforcement needs to be trained specifically to use each weapon, many of which require their own type of launcher. But even that isn’t a guarantee that everyone will use these weapons correctly or according to the use of force policies they’re supposed to follow—especially in the context of a mass protest aimed at stopping the use of police force.
How can you stay safe at a protest?
To be clear, the use of these weapons is “never warranted for peaceful protests,” Bir says. So if you’re at one of the many peaceful protests occurring across the country these days, you should not have to worry about them.
However, we also know that’s not necessarily how things are working out right now. Depending on the weather, you can think about wearing protective clothing that covers your skin and your face. But if it’s warm, that may not be a great idea considering that heat exhaustion is one of the most common protest-related health issues, SELF explained previously. If you’re hit with something, the severity of the injury will determine how you should take care of it—a bruise may be fine healing on its own, but an eye injury is a very different story.
Ultimately, it shouldn’t be the protestors’ responsibility to worry about how to keep themselves safe from these weapons, it’s on law enforcement to not use them inappropriately.