How Dangerous are Rubber Bullets and Stun Guns?

Ashley K asks: How dangerous are rubber bullets?

Utilised the world over, rubber bullets and stun guns are controversial additions to the arsenals of police forces and militaries due to their tendency to do the exact opposite of what they’re designed to do, rather than be non-lethal, occasionally killing the people they are leveled at. But how dangerous are they really?

As for rubber bullets, invented by the British Ministry of Defence in the 1970’s, rubber bullets have been a near-constant source of controversy ever since. For example, during The Troubles – a decidedly British sounding name commonly given to a conflict between the British Army and Irish paramilitary forces that occurred in the 1970’s – rubber bullets killed an estimated 17 people. This was the first time rubber bullets were ever utilised on a large scale, yet, despite the many deaths, they somehow still caught on as the defacto “non-lethal” option for armies and police forces around the globe.

To help mitigate the whole lethal force issue, British soldiers using them during The Troubles were instructed to fire them at the feet of whomever they were trying to incapacitate. The idea being to bounce the rubber bullet off the ground and strike a target in the legs somewhere. As you can probably imagine, bullets fired in this manner didn’t always bounce as intended and reports of people being struck in, shall we say, more sensitive areas of the body were commonplace throughout the conflict.

Of course, many soldiers ignored this ground bouncing recommendation entirely, aiming for a target’s centre or mass instead of firing the bullet at the floor as instructed. This further compounded the whole death and serious injury issue. As an idea of the kind of injuries rubber bullets are capable of causing, along with killing numerous individuals during The Troubles and beyond, rubber bullets also left many disfigured, paralyzed and even blinded.

In 1991 the MOD responded to criticisms about the lethality of the supposedly non-lethal weapons it was deploying in the conflict and found that, along with rubber bullets being far more dangerous than they’d anticipated, the specially-made guns used to fire them were wildly inaccurate. How inaccurate you ask? Well, one study found that rubber bullets would fly about a foot off course when fired from a distance of less than 90 feet. In response, the British Army replaced the weapon used to fire rubber bullets, but not the bullets themselves.

Since then, technology has progressed somewhat and today rubber bullets are commonly made of other materials such as plastic or cloth filled with ball bearings. As such, although the term “rubber bullet” is commonly used as a catchall term for this kind of ammunition, baton round is a more accurate term used by police forces and militaries. This said, rubber and rubber-coated bullets are still commonly used in many parts of the world.

It should further be noted that modern rubber bullets and baton rounds are no longer designed to be fired at the floor to avoid random ricochets, though they are still designed to be fired at a targets’ lower body and are also often designed to slow down significantly upon being shot- the idea being that when the bullet strikes a target, it will do so with enough force to cause injury, but not death or permanent injury.

Despite this, studies indicate that, in practise, rubber bullets and baton rounds are still quite inaccurate and capable of inflicting serious harm. Unsurprisingly from this, a 2000 study conducted by Israeli researchers found that injuries sustained by people struck by rubber bullets were all over the map with injuries being reported everywhere from the head to the feet. As will come as a shock to exactly no one, shots to the head were noted as being especially dangerous, with 2 people in the study dying more or less on impact as a result of being struck in the head by a rubber bullet.

These were results that were supported by a meta-analysis of other studies into the lethality of rubber bullets and other forms of non-lethal ammunition in 2017 conducted by researchers at the University of California. According to the research, so-called “non-lethal” projectiles are dangerous to almost ludicrous degree. For example, one poignant statistic gleaned from the meta-study was that of the 1,984 individuals researchers found who’d been hit by a non-lethal projectile, 1 in 6 were left disabled in someway as a direct result of being struck by it, while 1 in 33 of people struck by non-lethal projectiles died as a result. On top of this, the researchers noted that this particular latter statistic may not be truly representative of the danger non-lethal ammunition poses largely because it’s not standard practise for many police and military agencies the world over to register deaths caused by non-lethal ammunition. Thus, it’s thought the actual fatality rate is probably higher.

Further, the researchers concluded that non-lethal ammunition should probably never be deployed against civilians due to its inaccuracy at range and tendency to ricochet and hit random, often innocent bystanders who are just minding their business. In addition, Rohini Haar, the co-author of the paper, explained that trying to compensate for this by simply firing non-lethal ammunition at close range ultimately drastically increases the odds it will cause serious injury or death.

But here’s the thing, this isn’t something unique to rubber bullets and it’s noted that virtually every “non-lethal” weapon used by police and militaries around the world today can not only cause serious injury, but kill if used outside of the hyper-specific scenario they are designed to be utilised in. Even something as seemingly innocuous as so-called pepper spray, for example, has killed countless people, with asthmatic individuals noted as being especially at risk of death if they inhale the noxious mixture. Meaning in any given crowd should a asthmatic person happen to be in it or in the vicinity when the crowd is sprayed, the authorities may has well used their guns, with the mere fact of having that condition possibly making having the asthmatic condition a death sentence.

Moving on, tear gas has also been linked to numerous deaths around the world. As an aside, along with the gas itself being dangerous and in some cases, lethal, if inhaled for a prolonged period of time, the canister containing the gas can hilariously also be lethal in its own right as it is often fired at high speed into a crowd with little regard for where it’s going to land.

As for other surprisingly lethal “non-lethal” weapons, both tasers and stun guns have been linked to hundreds of deaths in the U.S. alone since their introduction. On this one, there have been several reports showing the use of high voltage stun guns, like the Taser, (known in the medical world as electronic control devices (ECD’s) can occasionally cause cardiac arrest. Arguably, the most famous of such reports was published on April 20, 2012 in the American Heart Association’s journal, Circulation.  In it, Dr. Douglas Zipes, at the Indiana University School of Medicine, reports on cases involving loss of consciousness by people who had ECD’s used on them.  His conclusion was;

ECD stimulation can cause cardiac electrical capture and provoke cardiac arrest due to ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation. After prolonged ventricular tachycardia/ventricular fibrillation without resuscitation, asystole develops.

As you might expect, when Dr. Zipes published his paper, there was a large amount of controversy surrounding the topic.  After all, it was long reported by manufacturers of ECD’s that their products were non-lethal, with these entities generally stating something to the effect that while the voltage associated with their use was high (usually between 20,000 and 150,000 volts), the amperage (around 3 milliamps) was too low to cause any permanent damage.

Law enforcement professionals were even sometimes instructed to use the devices on themselves before they were qualified to use them on the public.  Cops everywhere thus began laughing at any new-guy that had to be qualified on the weapon.

In any event, in the report, Dr. Zipes was able to show that certain people are more susceptible to having this high voltage/low amperage electricity cause cardiac problems, such as those that have structural heart diseases, are taking medications or drugs that leave the heart irritable and susceptible to external stimulation, and those exposed to long or repeated shocks by an ECD.

Placement of a ECD’s darts was also a contributing factor.  For any electrical impulse to capture a muscle, it must cross through that muscle.  This is why you see defibrillator paddles and pads being placed on either side of the heart when a doctor or paramedic attempts to externally shock a patient.  If a person had the ECD’s darts land on their chest, they are at greater risk of having that electricity pass through the hearts muscle. Dr. Zipes states the question isn’t if ECD’s can cause cardiac arrest, but how often it happens.

As a result of this paper, clinical data and animal studies, some ECD manufacturers have changed their stance on the non-lethal nature of their products.

Law enforcement officials from around the world have taken notice and begun to change their policies on the use of ECD’s.  For instance, in September of 2012, the Cincinnati Police Department changed its rules mandating, “Frontal shots are prohibited except in situations of self-defense or defense of another.”   Most who have changed their policies are quick to point out that ECD’s protect and save countless lives every day.  The numbers of those saved drastically outweigh any risk associated with using the devices.

Of course, beyond heart complications on this one (and indeed some of the other non-lethal weapons), it’s also noted that some deaths and serious injury occur from otherwise healthy individuals falling and hitting their head or the like. Again the exact number of deaths caused by such weapons are hard to discern as police and military agencies don’t tend to make this information public, if they even record it at all, but a 2017 investigation by Reuters found that when it comes to getting zapped, over a thousand Americans have been killed by tasers alone since their widespread adoption by police in 2000.

Amnesty International more or less agrees with in the ballpark of this number. For those advocating for stun guns, it should, again, be noted that, depending on which publication you read, ECD’s are said to have saved around 75,000 lives and reduce the risk of injury to those the devices have been used on by approximately 60%. With many noting the issue is perhaps not the devices themselves, but that occasionally those wielding them treat them a little too cavalierly as “non-lethal”, something, again, many agencies are rectifying by better training for those given the devices to use.

And this, of course, goes with all non-lethal weapons. While not nearly as innocuous as manufacturers occasionally present them as being, they still can be valuable tools when used in specific situations where their use is warranted and the availability of this tool is superior in safety to more extreme tools that would have otherwise needed to be deployed. The controversy, of course, tends to come when they are used in situations where an even lesser tool, perhaps even just de-escalating words, may have been warranted had the individual using the non-lethal weapon properly considered the danger of using said slightly misnamed tool.

On the note of terminology, it should come as no surprise that labeling a weapon as non-lethal does not necessarily require the thing be non-lethal. For example, it is the official stance of the United States Department of Defence that there is no obligation for weapons classified as being non-lethal to have “a zero probability of producing fatalities or permanent injuries”- an idea that is reiterated in the official literature of other governments who utilise non-lethal weapons we consulted.

Thankfully, for those of us who are a bit obsessed with semantics, it has become common practise among many agencies to refer to things like rubber bullets and tasers not as “non-lethal weapons” but as “less than lethal” weapons in acknowledgment of the fact they can absolutely cause serious injury, though still giving the implication that they won’t cause death.

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