Can Rubber Bullets Kill You?

So-called nonlethal weapons can be lethal.

Three days into the London riots, British Prime Minister David Cameron authorized Metropolitan Police forces to use rubber bullets as an emergency crowd control measure, a move which has raised controversy due to the weaponry's dicey reputation.

Classified as "nonlethal" or "less lethal" weapons, along the same lines as chemical irritants and stun guns, rubber bullets - which typically consist of a 40-millimeter metal shell coated in rubber - are meant to incapacitate targets without causing serious injury or death.

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But since their early use in the 1970s, medical professionals, human rights groups and government officials have criticized rubber bullets, also known as baton rounds, because they say the so-called nonlethal weapons can kill.

The British government was one of the first to deploy rubber bullets on a large scale - and see resulting casualties - during clashes with the Irish Republican Army.

From 1970 to 1975, the British military fired off 55,000 rounds of 5.9-inch (15-centimeter) rubber bullets in Northern Ireland, reportedly killing 13 people at a death rate of 1 in 18,000 rounds and resulting in a severe injury rate of 1 in 800.

Rubber bullet design and technology has progressed since then to improve accuracy and reduce injury rates, yet autopsy reports of Palestinean civilian fatalities from 1987 to 1993 concluded that rubber bullets fired by the Israeli military killed at least 20 people.

Just like real deal bullet, the potential danger of baton rounds also depends on how they're fired.

In a widely publicized study in The Lancet in 2000, which analyzed the Israeli military's use of rubber bullets against Palestinians, the medical researchers concluded: "Inaccuracy of rubber bullets and improper aiming and range of use resulted in severe injury and death in a substantial number of people. This ammunition should therefore not be considered a safe method of crowd control."

Out of 152 casualties, the study highlighted 201 noticeable injuries inflicted by rubber bullets on the limbs, as well as the head, neck, face and chest, indicating improper weapon handling, since rubber bullets should be aimed at the lower half of a person's body to avoid causing serious harm.

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Despite this evidence of rubber bullet-inflicted injuries and fatalities, the U.S. Department of Defense includes rubber bullets in its arsenal of nonlethal weaponry deployed "to incapacitate personnel and materiel while minimizing fatalities, permanent injury to personnel, and undesired damage to property and the environment." It even looked into developing rubber bullets for use in rapid-fire machine guns earlier this year.

And in response to the question of whether rubber bullets should be employed to quell the recent rioting in London, Peter Waddington, professor of social policy at University of Wolverhampton told the BBC, "baton rounds are one of the least lethal weapons available anywhere."

Credit: A policeman holds a rubber bullets weapon in Ficksburg, South Africa. Photo by The Times/Gallo Images/Getty Images