Rubber/plastic bullets used for crowd control can maim and kill

Given their inherent inaccuracy, they shouldn’t be used for this purpose, say researchers

Rubber/plastic bullets used for crowd control can maim and kill, and given their inherent inaccuracy, they shouldn’t be used for this purpose, concludes a review of the available evidence, published in the online journal BMJ Open.

Rubber/plastic bullets (kinetic impact projectiles) are designed to incapacitate by inflicting pain or injury. They are used by police, military, and security forces to disperse and control crowds.

There are more than 75 different types of bullet, capable of inflicting varying patterns and severity of injury, depending on the composition, shape, number, and muzzle velocity–the speed at which the bullet is ejected from the weapon. Many rubber/plastic bullets have muzzle velocities equal to those of live ammunition.

The flight path, firing distance, and the site of impact can also affect the type and severity of injury. But despite the widespread use of rubber/plastic bullets, there’s not much public information about the injuries they cause.

Manufacturers aren’t obliged to track this type of information during development, and the collection of data on the injuries associated with their use isn’t mandatory in most countries.

To try and address this, the researchers reviewed the available published evidence on injury, disability, and death associated with the use of rubber/plastic bullets.

From among 265 articles, 26 were suitable for inclusion in the review. Published between 1990 and 2017, they included 1984 mostly young adults, in Israel/Palestine, UK/Northern Ireland, South Asian countries, USA, Switzerland and Turkey.

The pooled data showed that 53 (3%) people died of their injuries, with penetrative injuries accounting for over half (56%), and blunt trauma for around one in four (23%) of these deaths.

Some 300 (15.5% of all survivors) were left with permanent disability as a direct result of the rubber bullet impact they sustained—usually to the head and neck. Blindness, and removal  of the spleen, or a section of the bowel (colostomy) as a result of abdominal injuries, accounted for most of this disability.

Out of all the 2135 injuries reported, nearly three out of four (71%) were severe, with those to the skin and hands/feet the most common.

And several of the studies highlighted the inaccuracy of rubber/plastic bullets, reporting instances in which they unintentionally injured bystanders and peaceful demonstrators instead of their intended targets.

The researchers highlight some important caveats to their findings, including variations in the type and quality of the data reported and the tendency to include only the most dramatic incidents in the selected studies.

Nevertheless, the findings “provide considerable insight into the health consequences of [rubber/plastic bullets]”, they say.

“The use of [rubber/plastic bullets] in crowd-control settings is based on the premise that [these] weapons are designed to limit the kinetic energy on impact to prevent penetrating injuries within a specific shooting range,” write the researchers.

But they continue: “Our findings indicate that these weapons have the potential to cause severe injuries and death.”

And they conclude: “[They] do not appear to be an appropriate means of force in crowd-control settings,”….adding that international guidelines on the use of crowd control weapons are urgently needed to stave off further needless injury and death.

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