“Less Lethal” Is Still Lethal: A Look at Rubber Bullets

“Rubber” is not an excuse for the misuse of rubber bullets

Less Lethal Is Still Lethal: A Look at Rubber Bullets

You and a friend are attending a local protest. You are holding up a handmade cardboard sign to show your solidarity fighting for the cause. The next thing you know a bullet is suddenly lodged in your skull, blood is flowing down your face, and you are being rushed to the hospital. Throughout the last 50 years of protests in the US, this has become the reality for an increasingly large number of people as police continue to use rubber bullets as a form of maintaining “law and order” and “crowd control.” 

The term “rubber bullet” is a catch-all phrase describing a less-lethal projectile bullet—essentially a euphemism of what it really is. It’s also a misnomer; the bullets that law enforcement fires at crowds are surrounded by a thin layer of rubber, but at their core these rubber bullets are made of the same metal as regular bullets. Throughout history, U.S. law enforcement has continually deployed rubber bullets to quell uprisings by the people, such as the Civil Rights Movement, the Anti-Vietnam War Movement, and the Black Lives Matter movement. 

Law enforcement officials claim that rubber bullets are intended for “crowd control.” But these bullets are not just inaccurate; they also can cause significant injuries. Rubber bullets are designed to be blunt objects, which is why they are larger than regular bullets. When fired at close range, they result in significant external and internal injuries such as punctured skin and broken bones according to Physicians for Human Rights. Furthermore, companies can manufacture rubber bullets without any regulations on the accuracy or safety of these weapons, and this lack of oversight only places the public in greater danger.

The California legislature passed bare-minimum safety standards for rubber bullets last month, but this issue is far from over. It is now illegal for police officers to fire rubber bullets at the head or neck—without certified training. Police officers are required by law to document the injuries caused by rubber bullets—but this still begs the question of who keeps them accountable. 

Following the police murder of George Floyd in May of 2020, many took to the streets to protest. In the process, numerous bystanders were hit by rubber bullets. One of these bystanders was Charf Lloyd: a disabled, unhoused, mentally ill man who happened to be in the vicinity of one protest in Los Angeles. He was unarmed—Los Angeles police still shot him multiple times in the face with rounds of rubber bullets, leaving him bent over and spewing blood. 

While this new California bill attempts to prevent this clear overuse of force, the systems currently in place to investigate and discipline police who flout the rules are inadequate. This is largely due to the fact that while law enforcement must document their use of rubber bullets and the injuries the bullets inflicted, there is no due process to enforce this documentation and discipline those that aimed for the head or neck according to a report by the California Legislative Information site. This severe lack of oversight enables police officers to continue to brutalize the public with their rubber bullets without any repercussions for the unnecessary harm they caused.

California’s new rubber bullet basic standard law demonstrates lawmakers’ acknowledgment that rubber bullets have serious consequences. While this law is a step in the right direction, it isn’t enough. Legislative action such as a ban on rubber bullets is necessary to prevent future harm. At the very least, lawmakers and police departments ought to enforce tighter, more rigorous standards for when nonlethal force is allowed.