What ‘Less Lethal’ Weapons Actually DoHistorians in the News
tags: policing, militarization
During the recent protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black Americans, police forces across the country have used weapons categorized as “less lethal” to disperse crowds and subdue individuals. But despite their label, these tools can still overstep the inherent limitations of flesh and bone. Devices that sound innocuous—rubber bullets, tear gas—are designed to quickly change human behavior through force and chemistry. And they are sold as an alternative to the kind of force that immediately kills. Such weapons are not harmless, however.
For starters, they are often used as a prelude to more severe measures, notes Stuart Schrader, an assistant research scientist in sociology at Johns Hopkins University and author of the book Badges without Borders. “One of the reasons it’s a complete misnomer to call [a weapon] ‘nonlethal’or ‘less lethal’ [is] if it’s being used to force people into the [attack range] of cops with batons—or soldiers with rifles,” he says. “In only the most strict technical reading could you call that ‘less lethal’or ‘nonlethal.’” And in addition to their use in combination with lethal weapons, these tools can still cause serious injury and death on their own.
Militaries and police have employed rubber bullets in many situations, beginning in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and including Washington, D.C., this month. But they are just one example of a family of projectiles, sometimes called “baton rounds,” that have long been used as an alternative to standard bullets. The December 1969 issue of the FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin described one such item used by the British government for riot control in Hong Kong, then a dependent territory of the U.K. The bullet had a teak shell with a small lead insert and was fired by compressed gas. Present-day wooden baton rounds are broader and more puck-shaped. And they have been used by police from Seattle to Ferguson. Beyond rubber and wood, other less lethal projectiles still in use include plastic bullets, which have also caused injuries and deaths, as well as gun-propelled satchels full of lead shot, called “beanbag rounds,” which incapacitate people in much the same way.
One of the oldest types of tear gas is the compound CS (2-chlorobenzalmalononitrile), which was formulated in 1928 and popularized in the 1960s for two main uses: as a weapon in support of lethal action by the U.S. military in Vietnam and as a nonlethal way to control crowds—many of them protesting police brutality and the Vietnam War—in the U.S. “To call CS [a] ‘riot control agent,’ as the US military did,” Schrader wrote in Badges without Borders, “was to legitimize its use in Vietnam and make it uncontroversial,” despite the fact that “CS was not used in riot control as much as in combat.”
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