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Rubber bullets and bean bag bullets are types of kinetic impact projectiles (KIPs). They’re small, solid objects that are shot from guns or launchers. Law enforcement and military use KIPs to control crowds, often during public demonstrations.

Both KIPs have been used for several decades. In the United States, rubber bullets were first used during the Vietnam War protests in the 1960s. Meanwhile, bean bag guns have been used since their inception in the 1970s.

Police consider rubber and bean bag bullets to be nonlethal, or “less lethal,” weapons. They’re used as an alternative to traditional firearms.

However, research has shown that rubber and bean bag bullets can pose serious risks. They can lead to severe injury, disability, or in some cases, death.

Read on to learn about the injuries these projectiles can cause, plus what to do if you’re shot.

Use of rubber bullets and other projectiles by police in Black Lives Matter protests

During mass protests fueled by the death of George Floyd, police used rubber bullets and other projectiles to control crowds. This has sparked controversy, as the bullets have caused serious injuries like fractured facial bones and lost eyes in protestors. Some have also spoken out against how police decide when and how to shoot the bullets. People are calling for the ban of rubber bullets, stating that these “less lethal” weapons are actually lethal.

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Rubber bullets are solid, blunt-tipped pellets made of rubber or rubber-coated metal. They’re classified as nonlethal weapons by law enforcement.

According to the Department of Defense, nonlethal weapons are designed to quickly incapacitate or stop people without causing permanent injury. The effects are meant to be reversible, temporary, and not serious.

Also, when using KIPs, law enforcement is generally instructed to shoot at a person’s limbs. This decreases the risk of the KIPs hitting vulnerable body parts like the organs.

But when it comes to rubber bullets, medical professionals have challenged the definition of “nonlethal.” That’s because research, like in this 2016 case report, found that rubber bullets can cause serious injuries, disabilities, and death.

This is due to the size and shape of the bullets. Compared to conventional bullets, rubber bullets are large and irregular, so they shoot out in an unstable manner. This reduces their accuracy, increasing their risk of hitting sensitive body parts.

Rubber bullets also move slower than conventional bullets, which increases their inaccuracy.

Examples of rubber bullet wounds include:

Minor wounds

If a rubber bullet fails to fully penetrate your skin, it may cause minor wounds like:

  • Bruises. Due to the size and force of rubber bullets, they can bruise your skin or muscle.
  • Broken skin. A rubber bullet can break your skin and create an open wound, like a minor cut or abrasion.

Moderate wounds

Rubber bullets might cause moderate wounds like:

  • Sprains. A sprain can occur if a rubber bullet hits one of your ligaments.
  • Cuts or lacerations. A rubber bullet may puncture your skin without going too deep. Still, this can cause an open wound that requires stitches.

Severe wounds

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), about 70 percent of people injured by KIPs have severe wounds that need medical attention.

Severe rubber bullet wounds include:

  • Fractures. If a rubber bullet hits your bone, it can cause a fracture.
  • Eye injuries. Your head and eyes are susceptible to rubber bullet injuries. Also, your bones in this area are close to your skin.
  • Blindness. If a KIP hits your eye, it will damage your eyeball and surrounding structures. According to the ACLU, about 84 percent of eye injuries cause permanent vision loss.
  • Brain injury. Brain damage can occur if a rubber bullet enters your brain through an eye socket or scalp.
  • Nerve and muscle injuries. Both superficial and deep cuts can damage nerves or muscle. In severe cases, it may require amputation.
  • Organ injuries. Rubber bullets can cause internal bleeding or organ damage, even if the bullet doesn’t break your skin. They can injure organs like your heart, lungs, spleen, kidneys, and liver.

Bean bag bullets, also called bean bag rounds or flexible batons, are small fabric bags filled with tiny metal balls. The balls are often made of lead.

Bean bag rounds are packed into a cartridge in a gun. When the bags are shot, they expand in flight. This increases the surface area of the bag when they hit a target.

Like rubber bullets, bean bag bullets are considered to be nonlethal or less lethal weapons. However, bean bag bullets also pose serious risks, including disabilities and death.

For example, in a 2017 case report, a bean bag bullet hit a man’s eye. The bag entered the nasal cavity and fractured his skull. In another 2020 case report, a bean bag bullet penetrated a man’s chest.

If you were shot by a rubber bullet, seek medical assistance immediately.

Look for a street medic if you don’t have access to medical care or need help as soon as possible. Street medics are volunteers who offer first aid at public demonstrations. Typically, they wear clothing with a red cross or strips of red tape.

If you think you have a minor wound, you should still get medical help. A healthcare professional can check for complications and confirm your injury isn’t serious.

Meanwhile, here’s what you can do to protect your wound:

  • If you have a superficial cut, clean it with soap and water.
  • Apply antibiotic ointment to reduce the risk of infection.
  • If your wound is bleeding, cover it with a clean cloth and apply firm pressure for 5 to 10 minutes to slow bleeding.
  • If the wound keeps bleeding, add a new piece of cloth. Avoid removing the first cloth, which can interrupt clotting.
  • Avoid overexertion, which can increase bleeding.
  • Avoid scrubbing the wound.
  • Keep the wound covered with a clean bandage.

If you want to take legal action, you can:

  • Take pictures of your injuries.
  • Ask a doctor for documentation of your injuries.
  • Write down as much as you can remember, including the agency of law enforcement involved.
  • Ask witnesses for their contact information.
  • Contact an attorney or the ACLU for legal assistance.

If you have a minor wound and you’ve already seen a doctor, you can use home remedies to help healing:

  • Cold compress. An ice pack or cold compress can relieve swelling and pain. This is especially soothing for bruises.
  • Rest. Avoid overexertion, which can increase pain and disrupt the healing process.
  • Elevate the injury. If possible, keep the affected area above your heart to move fluid away from the wound. This will help minimize swelling.
  • Wear a compression bandage. Wrap an elastic compression bandage around the area to further limit swelling. Avoid wrapping it too tight.
  • Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers. OTC pain medications like ibuprofen and naproxen may help reduce pain.

Call a doctor if you’ve been shot with a rubber or bean bag bullet. They can examine your injury and suggest the best treatment.

You should also call a doctor if you have:

Medical emergency

The following symptoms indicate a medical emergency. Call 911 if you or someone you know got shot with a rubber or bean bag round and has:

  • a deep wound
  • numbness around the wound
  • a bullet embedded in your skin
  • nonstop bleeding
  • dizziness
  • loss of consciousness
  • difficulty breathing
  • a wound in your torso, neck, or head
  • a chronic disease
  • is pregnant

Rubber bullets and bean bag bullets are considered to be nonlethal weapons. But due to their large size and irregular shape, they can still cause serious injuries. Examples include organ damage, fractures, and eye injuries resulting in blindness.

If you’ve been shot by a rubber or bean bag bullet, get medical help immediately. Look for a street medic or call a doctor. Call 911 if you have a deep wound, nonstop bleeding, or a bullet embedded in your skin.