- During protests demanding justice for George Floyd, some police forces have used rubber bullets, considered a “non-lethal method of crowd control.”
- When fired at too close a range or too high, rubber bullets can be dangerous and even deadly.
- If the bullet has seriously lacerated the skin, seek emergency care immediately. Otherwise, clean the wound, treat it with a topical like Neosporin, and wrap it in something clean.
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As protests over the death of George Floyd have flared in cities across the US, police responded with batons, tear gas, and rubber bullets, videos show.
Linda Tirado, a journalist in Minnesota got shot with a rubber bullet to the eye, and later reported she permanently lost sight in it.
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While rubber bullets are intended to be a relatively harmless crowd-control technique, they can be extremely harmful, leading to everything from fractures to death, Dr. Jose Torradas, a spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians, told Insider. But there are ways to protect yourself.
Rubber bullets should feel like being hit with a paintball
Rubber bullets are what they sound like, though sometimes they’re not completely made of rubber and instead are made of another material like steel and coated in rubber, Torradas said. Law enforcement professionals use them to disperse crowds while, in theory, minimising harm.
“They’re used because of their composition and weight and how they’re shaped,” which allows them to lose velocity quickly, he said. That way, they shouldn’t break the skin if they’re fired at a far enough distance, as intended.
Rubber bullets are also meant to be fired at people’s lower extremities – like the thigh – where they are less likely to do damage, thanks to the protective muscle and fat and distance from the face, which is most vulnerable to serious injury, Torradas said.
If used like this, rubber bullets shouldn’t break the skin or leave much more than a bruise, like you’re being hit with a paintball, he said.
But there’s “a fine line” between a shot that leaves a minor welt and one that can be dangerous, even deadly, Torradas said. It depends on how close the victim is, how much skin is exposed, and where on the body it lands.
“If you’re just firing off at close range, not really aiming for the lower limbs, you’re asking for trouble,” he said.
Serious injuries can include bone fractures, deep skin lacerations that can lead to serious infections, blindness, nerve damage, and even organ injury that leads to death.
Medical professionals have challenged calling the bullets ‘non-lethal’
A 2017 review of past research in BMJ Open looked at 1,984 people who had injuries from “kinetic impact projectiles,” which includes rubber bullets. It found that 53 of them died and 300 suffered permanent disability. Of those who survived, 71% had severe injuries.
“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 wrote. “There is an urgent need to establish international guidelines on the use of crowd-control weapons to prevent unnecessary injuries and deaths.”
Their conclusions echo that of a 2016 study reviewing 28 records of patients who sought orthopaedic treatment for rubber bullet injuries – including fractures, nerve and tendon damage, and bullets lodged into deep tissue. The authors concluded that “these weapons are lethal and should hence be reclassified.”
How to treat a rubber bullet wound
One of the best way protesters can avoid serious injury from rubber bullets is to keep as far away from those firing as possible and wear thick clothing, like denim or even leather, that doesn’t leave much skin exposed.
You can even layer clothes, wear protective pads made for athletes, and men would benefit from wearing an athletic cup, Torradas said.
Because the face, and specifically the eyes, are the most vulnerable to permanent injury, it’s smart to wear goggles made with “ballistic grade glassware.” While ski goggles might suffice, Torradas said, regular glasses will not: In fact, they will shatter if they’re hit and potentially lead to even more injuries.
If you do get struck by a bullet that deeply penetrates your skin or that you have any suspicion may have caused a fracture or left particles embedded, seek emergency care immediately. The longer you delay, the worse the outcome, Torradas said.
If the injury is a minor abrasion, generously clean it with soap and water or, even better, rubbing alcohol or Betadine. Then use a clean towel to remove any dirt, apply a layer of an antibiotic ointment like Neosporin, and wrap it in gauze, Torradas said.
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