‘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.

Beanbag rounds and similar technologies are absolutely incompatible with civilian self-defense. When police officers employ them — if they’re being tactically smart — they use them in limited situations as a last resort in an attempt to avoid having to use deadly force, but almost always where the use of deadly force is proper and legally authorized. Typically one officer employs the less-lethal method while at least one other officer covers the bad guy with a firearm.

In any deadly force encounter, and surely in school shootings, the three main issues to consider are means, opportunity, and jeopardy. Does the bad guy have the means — a weapon or obvious potential physical ability — to cause serous bodily injury or death? Does he have the opportunity? Is he within the effective range of his weapon? Is he putting people in jeopardy? Is he demonstrating his intention to cause injury or death? If all of these factors are present, deadly force is not only allowed, but necessary to stop the attacker.


In the Newtown killings, the killer began by shooting his way into the school and immediately thereafter began killing innocents. There could be no doubt of his intent or of the immediate necessity to stop him.

Probably the best illustration of the relevant issues was a bizarre 1997 standoff between a katana (Japanese sword) -wielding man and the Seattle Police. (Video of the incident, and an account.) In that case, all of the elements for the use of deadly force were present. The man had the means to cause serious bodily injury or death and he had the opportunity to do it. He was standing on the street, threatening anyone within range. Removing a sword from its scabbard for any reason other than cleaning or training is more than sufficient demonstration of deadly intent. While the man obviously knew nothing of actual swordsmanship, he was still sufficiently dangerous. The only element of deadly force that was lacking was jeopardy. As long as the police could keep the man far enough away from them and others, jeopardy did not attach, and it was not — until that moment — absolutely necessary to shoot him.

Many officers were keeping the man continuously covered with their firearms, and all kept cars and other solid objects between him and them. Had the man actually charged officers, as soon as he was within roughly 30 feet he would have died in a hail of bullets. He was shot — from close range — with many beanbag rounds, and also by what appear to have been rubber bullets. While some of them obviously hurt him, none of them incapacitated him, and none of them caused him to drop his sword or otherwise surrender.


The man was even enveloped in a cloud of pepper spray, which had no effect. He was finally subdued, after about eleven hours, by being knocked to the ground with what was essentially a water cannon, followed by officers pinning him with an extension ladder and a pole. Low-tech means won the day. The beanbag rounds — many of them — were ineffective.

Schools are generally poorly designed to deter shooters, and equally poorly designed for defense. Their long, open hallways provide clear fields of movement and fire for killers, and little or no cover for defenders. Less than lethal methods such as tasers or beanbag rounds are seriously range-limited.

In a school attack, distance and timing are everything. From where would a shotgun necessary to fire beanbag rounds come? The only effective way to employ firearms is for staff to carry them, concealed and secure, on their persons. A shotgun locked in a safe in the principal’s office suite is of no use if the principal with the key is at home sick, at a meeting at administrative offices, or wounded or dead in a hallway. Even if they could get to that shotgun, the time involved will cost lives, and no beanbag round can be relied upon to stop a killer, even if one could get close enough to fire it before being cut down. The same applies even more to a Taser, which is even more range-limited, and the barbs of which may not penetrate heavy clothing. Consider too the tactical horror of having to confront, with less than lethal means, multiple killers whose weapons have much greater effectiveness and range.


Any rational person must do all they can to avoid ever having to use deadly force. But when it becomes necessary, they must employ it immediately, accurately, surely, and decisively. “Shooting to wound,” firing warning shots, and shooting people with rubber bullets or beanbags  are all legally unnecessary and truly dangerous. If one has the legal grounds to shoot, they must do it with sufficient accuracy and with a volume of fire sufficient to immediately stop the attack.

One never shoots to kill; one shoots to stop. If, as a consequence of being stopped, the attacker dies, bad for him, good for the children, school staff, and society.

Less lethal methods for civilians are uniquely and unreasonably dangerous. Not only are they highly unlikely to stop a determined attacker, they are an inexcusable waste of time in situations where every second means lost lives. If they don’t immediately stop an attack, the teacher employing them will be most unlikely to survive to try something more effective.

The only rational response to active shooters, the only response that will deter attacks and can immediately end them, is to train with and use appropriate firearms and ammunition. Beanbag rounds and similar technologies are appropriate only for highly specific tactical situations encountered by the police, backed by firearms. The fact that no rational police officer would assault an active school shooter with less than lethal technologies speaks volumes.



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