‘Less Lethal’: Good Intentions, Dangerous Results

The renewed “discussion” about school shooters has raised many ideas -- some well-intentioned, some not -- about how to prevent and, to a lesser degree, to stop active shooters. Unfortunately, most are attempts to dance around the reality: the only effective way to immediately stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. Preferably, multiple good guys.

Mass rushes of unarmed teachers and children at armed killers, Tasers, and beanbag rounds are some of the more prominent suggestions being bandied about. A company called Integrity Ballistics is promoting a “new” shotgun round that is supposedly more effective and less likely to kill than older “beanbag rounds.” Unfortunately, any such technology is absolutely unsuitable for responding to active shooters, in schools and elsewhere. “Less than lethal” technologies should never be relied upon to produce consistent effects, should never serve as a substitute for appropriate firearms and ammunition in deadly force encounters, and should only be employed by the police in very limited circumstances. Especially since -- despite the weapons’ designed purpose -- they still often kill.

Lacking Star Trek phaser technology, where the force necessary to either stun or vaporize an attacker is just the push of a button away, police forces have long sought a reliable and effective technology that would cause violent, uncooperative bad guys to immediately stop and submit. Early attempts with projectiles made of rubber or similar materials adapted to 12-gauge shotgun cartridges proved unsatisfactory. While they were reasonably accurate out to about 20 yards, they were sufficiently hard and struck with sufficient force to break bones, rupture internal organs, or cause other horrific injuries that looked awful when displayed in court, making jurors feel sorry even for Charles Manson-like characters. They were far too likely to kill people officers didn’t want to kill, and they were never sufficiently accurate to be certain of striking people in non-deadly places, which vary from person to person.

Practical experience during my police service led me to develop what I call the “Sober Police Officer In Training” rule. The SPOIT rule states that any striking or restraining technique, or the application of virtually any less-lethal technology, will tend to work splendidly on sober police officers undergoing training in clean, dry, well-lit gymnasiums. However, the same techniques or technologies are highly likely to unexpectedly and spectacularly fail in the real world, when applied against people who are drunk, drugged, enraged, don’t care how much pain they have to take, or are just so evil, mean, stupid, or determined they will endure just about anything to get to whomever they’ve decided they want to hurt.

Beanbag rounds represent something of a compromise. They’re small canvas bags filled with lead shot or pellets made of other softer materials stuffed into 12-gauge shotgun cases. When fired, they spread out to 3″ or so in diameter and strike the target more or less flat, distributing the force of impact rather like a long-range punch or kick. Tactically, they are less accurate than rubber projectiles and have less range. Because all shotguns are smooth-bore weapons, the cartridges shoot to different points of aim with different shotguns, and successive rounds often will not shoot to the same point of aim with the same shotgun. Because such rounds are very expensive, even the police can’t shoot enough of them to be truly proficient.

Because of the very nature of these rounds, their velocity begins to drop dramatically the instant they leave the muzzle of the shotgun. While they can deliver substantial force to a bad guy within 10 yards or so, beyond that distance their effectiveness drops quickly. Adding more powder to increase range, accuracy, and striking power greatly increases the probability of serious injury or death, which is what such rounds are supposed to prevent.