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What Rubber Bullets Can Do to the Human Body
May 8, 2024

What Rubber Bullets Can Do to the Human Body

Reading Time: 5 minutes

I Shouldn’t Even Have to Say This But Rubber Bullets Have No Place on a College Campus, The ‘less lethal’ weapons were used against student protesters at UCLA., UCLA and Police: Here’s what rubber bullets can do to a body.

Victoria Snelgrove was in a crowd celebrating the Boston Red Sox’s win over the New York Yankees in 2004 when a police officer shot her through the eye with a rubber bullet.

If she had blinked, the bullet—which was traveling at 200 feet per second—would have likely ‘only’ blinded her. The muscle and skin would have provided some protection, a trauma surgeon told me. But the 21-year-old had her eyes open when the officer pulled the trigger, allowing the paintball-like projectile to rip right through her eye and break apart the bones in her skull, damaging her brain. Snelgrove later died at a Boston-area hospital, 11 hours after she was shot.

Rubber bullets had killed before. During the Troubles in the 1970s and 1980s, the British Army killed 16 people throughout Northern Ireland using rubber bullets. Israeli human rights group B’Tselem claims that at least 19 Palestinians, including 12 children, were killed by the Israel Defense Forces using rubber bullets between 2003 and 2013.

Proponents of the use of rubber bullets will say that they’re a valuable tool for law enforcement to quell unruly crowds while minimizing the risk of fatalities and preventing unnecessary loss of life. They can also help officers respond quickly in order to maintain control without resorting to deadly force. But the rubber bullets can be deadly themselves, as well as maim and cause permanent disability. During a demonstration in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 31, 2020, one protester was shot by police with a rubber bullet that blinded them permanently in one eye. ‘My eye exploded from the impact of the rubber bullet and my nose moved from where it should be to below the other eye,’ they told Amnesty International.

Most recently, law enforcement appeared to fire rubber bullets at a group of pro-Palestinian student protesters at UCLA early Thursday morning. The operation was a part of an effort by police to clear the dayslong encampment on the school’s campus, and resulted in the arrest of at least 209 people. The Los Angeles Times reported that the rubber bullets were fired after protesters threw projectiles like plastic water bottles and wood at law enforcement. While officers told the paper there were no serious injuries sustained by protesters, ‘the scenes inside the encampment and its medical tent tell a different story,’ wrote five reporters covering the mess.

Images of the incident began pouring out over social media on Thursday, including a video that showed police officers firing on student protesters behind barricades. One user shared images he took after he was allegedly struck by a rubber bullet to the head, resulting in ’11 stitches and 4 staples in my dome.’

This is—and this is a statement backed by interviews I did with experts—completely fucked. Rubber bullets have the potential to cause so much more harm than their name might suggest.

‘It seems like a very tightly packed crowd, which makes it very difficult to target an individual who had to be controlled in some way,’ Patrick Wilcken, a researcher on military, security, and policing issues at Amnesty International, says of the UCLA video. ‘There seems to be two or three of them firing at least a dozen rounds of projectiles. It doesn’t seem like a very carefully controlled operation that is focused on one or two violent individuals.’

Rubber bullets fall under a class of ammunition dubbed ‘kinetic impact projectiles’—KIPs. They’re a part of the rapidly expanding world of so-called less lethal weapons, named such as they are because they are ostensibly less likely to send you to the ancestors when used against you. These weapons come in many different varieties, ranging from ‘smaller’ 9 mm rounds designed to be fired at a person’s legs or torso, to the much bigger, pop-can-sized 40 mm rounds that are designed to be ‘skip fired’ by ricocheting off pavement or other hard surfaces towards their target (police historically do not do this, and simply fire at the target).

Despite being ‘less lethal,’ rubber bullets often cause temporary injuries like lacerations and broken bones, and even permanent injuries such as blindness. An Amnesty International report released in 2023 found that police around the world routinely misuse rubber bullets against peaceful protesters, causing severe injuries and death. As the KIPs proliferate, instances of misuse—and their devastating injuries—are also on the rise, Wilcken says.

The use of ‘less lethal’ bullets dates back to 1956 when the U.K. military fired bullets made of teak against Hong Kong protesters. They’ve been used against students before: The U.S. Army deployed its own KIPs against Vietnam War protesters at the University of California at Berkeley in 1968. (Activists protesting U.S. involvement in a foreign war on a campus in southern California … feels familiar!) Since then, though, America hasn’t really dropped its love affair with rubber bullets—with devastating consequences.

Advocacy group Physicians for Human Rights found that police officers shot at least 115 people in the head and neck with KIPs during the first two months of the George Floyd–related protests in 2020. At least 30 people suffered permanent eye damage as a result. A 2017 medical review published in the journal BMJ Open found that between 1990 and 2017, KIPs caused at least 53 deaths, and 300 people suffered permanent injuries as a result.

They’re not even made of rubber—or at least, not the way you probably think. Selwyn Rogers Jr., director of the University of Chicago Medicine Trauma Center, has dealt with cases of rubber bullet injuries and deaths throughout his career. He says that the KIPs he’s dealt with may be ’20 percent rubber, and 80 percent other stuff,’ such as metal or silica.

‘When people think of rubber, it has a certain connotation; it’s soft,’ Rogers says. These projectiles ‘are not soft. The reason they’re used for riots is because they hurt. If it didn’t hurt, it would not be effective.’

Rogers compares it to a baseball being thrown by a major league pitcher. ‘If I threw a baseball at you really hard, I could still kill you with a baseball,’ he says. ‘It’s happened before.’ Any projectile directed at an unprotected human can do harm. However, we don’t allow cops to hurl baseballs at people on purpose.

Rubber bullets are weapons. They break bones. They cause disability. They can kill.

They should not be used against college students to punish them for doing normal college-student activities. As my colleague Natalie Shutler framed the campus activity this week: ‘College kids—they protest. A lot. Like, usually around every big election cycle, but about all kinds of issues, big and small. And guess what? They should!’

They should also do so without fear of being hit with a speeding, possibly mostly metal projectile in the process. Even if a student throws something themselves, they are not launching a water bottle from a device meant to inflict pain.

Yet these weapons seemingly multiply and flourish in response to student activists due to their proliferation in policing. They’re put in the hands of undertrained officers thrown into high-stress situations, causing them to routinely misuse them. And, in the case of the UCLA campus, they appeared to be fired at close range at the protesters, resulting in injury and increasing the potential that something even worse could have happened.

Whether it’s on the campus of UCLA, in the streets of Belfast, or in cities in Hong Kong, the use of less lethal weapons has a chilling effect on free speech, according to Wilcken. That is perhaps one of the biggest dangers when it comes to their use—and we need to stop turning a blind eye to that.


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