Widespread protests are currently tearing through America and around the world as a result of decades of frustration, anger, and disappointment over police brutality and systemic racism that came to a head recently with the death of a black man, George Floyd, by a white police officer in Minneapolis on May 25. In cases where riots have broken out, US law enforcement has returned fire on protestors using tear gas and rubber bullets as a means of “non-lethal” crowd control, but a study published in BMJ Open in 2017 shows that rubber bullets can sometimes match the lethality of live ammunition. Also known as "kinetic impact munitions" or "baton rounds", rubber bullets are meant to cause pain but not serious injury with expected injuries including contusions, abrasions, and hematomas, but a widescale analysis revealed this is often not the case.
The study analyzed 1,984 rubber bullet injuries and found that of those, 300 people ended up with injuries that led to permanent disability and 53 people died. The justification for police opening fire on protestors with rubber bullets is that they're non-lethal but as this study, as well as reports from the ongoing protests and riots, demonstrate, these bullets are capable of causing significant, life-altering, and even fatal injury.
“Blunt trauma can be as lethal as penetrative injuries,” Michele Heisler, a University of Michigan medical professor and the medical director of Physicians for Human Rights, told Inverse. “When they are fired at close range, the levels of lethality and patterns of injury of many types of [kinetic impact projectiles] are similar to those of live ammunition. Most simply cannot be used safely against crowds.”
Reports of injuries from recent protests have included ruptured eyeballs and broken bones, with several cases including journalists and members of the public resulting in the loss of an eye after being directly struck by a rubber bullet. Police guidelines indicate that rubber bullets should be shot at the ground nearby protestors so they are struck by a rebounding bullet rather than a direct hit, but the Black Lives Matter protests have seen the bullets instead being fired directly at protestors' heads and throats.
Even indirect bullets pose a significant threat as its impossible to predict where they will rebound to. Delicate areas of the face and body such as the eyes, mouth, and groin don’t need the full force of a direct shot to be catastrophically damaged, and indirect shots have injured and even killed people in the past.