George Floyd protests

How are rubber bullets meant to be used and why are they so dangerous?

The use of rubber bullets in the US amid the protests following the death of George Floyd has been widely condemned due to the injuries they can cause.

How are rubber bullets meant to be used and why are they so dangerous?
CHANDAN KHANNA AFP

The use of rubber bullets and tear gas by US law enforcement agencies during protests following the death of George Floyd have caused international indignation as the deployment of such projectiles can cause serious harm and even fatalities and most countries prohibit their use to quell civilian unrest.

Rubber bullets were first used by the British military in Northern Ireland but the UK army is now prohibited from firing them at civilians. Israeli forces still use the munitions and there was outrage in France last year when rubber bullets were fired during the gilets jaunes (yellow jacket) protests, injuring hundreds of people.

In Washington, D.C., the National Guard allegedly fired rubber bullets last week to disperse peaceful protesters near a historic church where President Donald Trump was subsequently photographed. The US president subsequently denied that tear gas had been deployed but made no mention of the firing of rubber bullets.

Rubber bullets not legislated in USA

Police in the US are not required to document their use of rubber bullets, so there is no national data to show how often they’re used, Brian Higgins, the former police chief of Bergen County, New Jersey, told CBS News, adding that they should only be deployed to control an “extremely aggressive crowd”. In the US, there is no nationally legislated regulation on the use of rubber bullets.

Protesters taking part in the George Floyd marches have also been hit by a variety of rubber, plastic, and “sponger” bullets. Reuters journalists in Minneapolis were shot by police with 40mm hard plastic projectiles during a protest on Saturday.

Minneapolis Police Department spokesperson John Elder told reporters: “We use 40 mm less-lethal foam marking rounds. We do not use rubber bullets.”

Protesters in Columbus, Ohio reported having been shot with wooden bullets by police forces.

Ohio police deploy "knee-knockers"

Images online showed wooden dowel-shaped rods sliced into small, bullet-sized projectiles. The Columbus Police Department confirmed they used those devices against protesters on May 30 and said they are known as “knee knockers.”

In Los Angeles, police have used rubber projectiles, and Mayor Eric Garcetti has said the police department will minimize their use going forward.

A 2017 survey published by the British Medical Journal found that injuries from such “kinetic impact projectiles” caused death in 2.7% of cases.