This crowd-control method isn't as harmless as it might sound, according to the doctors we spoke to.

By Claire Gillespie
June 02, 2020
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Following the death of George Floyd—one of an untold number of black people who’ve experienced police brutality over the years—organized protests have taken place throughout the US and beyond. During some protests, law enforcement have used rubber bullets (as well as batons, tear gas, and flash grenades) to control crowds.  

But they haven’t only targeted people looting and causing damage. Author and photographer Linda Tirado was shot in the eye with a rubber bullet at a protest in Minnesota, and she revealed on Twitter on May 30 that she’s now permanently blind in one eye. “The docs absolutely refuse to let me go back to work for they say six weeks (sic),” she wrote. 

What are rubber bullets, exactly?

According to a 2016 report by Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) and the International Network of Civil Liberties Organizations (INCLO), rubber bullets are a type of kinetic impact projectile (KIP) used for crowd-control purposes. They can be solid, spherical or cylindrical, come in a range of sizes, and can be fired as single shots or in groups of multiple projectiles. Sometimes they’re made of plastic or PVC instead of rubber, or even a composite that includes metal. Rubber bullets were first used by US law enforcement in the mid-1960s during protests against the Vietnam War. 

A systematic review of medical literature, published in BMJ Open in 2017, found that rubber bullets can cause serious injury, disability, and death. Of 1,984 people who had injuries from KIPs, 53 died and 300 suffered permanent disability. Of those who survived, 71% had severe injuries, according to the review. 

“Rubber bullets are less lethal than other bullets but do inflict significant pain or injury, depending on where on your body you get hit and your distance from the officer,” Howard Mell, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP), tells Health. 

How dangerous are rubber bullets?

Despite being “less lethal,” rubber bullets are still extremely dangerous. Officers are trained to fire downward, avoid the face, and aim at extremities (i.e. arms and legs). Yet anytime a bullet is fired, it can ricochet and cause serious injury, says Dr. Mell. A rubber bullet can break skin or cause serious welts or bruising. If you get hit by one from 30 yards away, it feels like a strong punch. If you get hit in the neck, you could sustain permanent damage or life-threatening injury to your airway. If you get hit in the eye, you could lose it. And getting hit point-blank can be deadly.

“Most commonly, rubber bullets cause contusions (bruises) and mild swelling, but they have been known to cause fractures, loss of the function of eyes (in some case requiring removal of eyes due to rupture), and intracranial hemorrhage (bleeding in the brain),” Ian Wittman, MD, chief of emergency medicine at NYU Langone Hospital in Brooklyn, New York, tells Health. 

What to do if you're shot with a rubber bullet

If you are taking part in protests and get shot with a rubber bullet, Dr. Wittman advises seeking immediate medical attention. “They can cause all manner of damage to the structures they impact,” he says. In the meantime, apply firm pressure to bleeding wounds and ice to contusions. 

Dr. Mell agrees that it’s important to see a doctor even if your injury doesn’t initially seem to be serious. “If you get hit in the neck, even if you appear to be fine at first, you could sustain an injury to bone, blood vessel, or muscle tissue that takes time to develop and could be life-threatening,” he warns.

Human rights groups around the world have been lobbying against the use of rubber bullets and other KIPs. 

"Given their inherent inaccuracy, potential for misuse, and associated health consequences of severe injury, disability, and death, KIPs do not appear to be appropriate weapons for use in crowd-control settings," the authors of the BMJ Open review wrote. "There is an urgent need to establish international guidelines on the use of crowd-control weapons to prevent unnecessary injuries and deaths."

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