February 11, 2005

On "nonlethal" weapons

In a blog entry today, Eric Zorn says,

No weapon is ever going to be perfectly safe. We saw that in Boston when a young woman was killed by a bean-bag projectile that hit her in the eye when police fired into an unruly crowd after a Red Sox victory last fall.
at the end of a longer post praising tasers and (by extension) other "nonlethal" weapons. But he draws the wrong conclusions: rather than encouraging a move to alternative weaponry, this should be the strongest argument for leaving police armed with lethal weapons, which they are (mostly) actually reluctant to use except as a weapon of last resort.

Police officers are firing at more people than they ever would have before, because they think it's ok because it's "nonlethal". Last year they fired a taser at a six year old kid in Miami that, I'm reasonably confident, they would not have shot a gun at. At the VEISHA festival last year at Iowa State, a small fistfight involving just two people brought out cops in riot gear with rubber bullets and tear gas, who then proceeded to incite a riot and spray tear gas throughout a residential area, causing the partial evacuation of several dorms. The RNC protests (among others) were rife with examples of people who had significant nonlethal force applied to them. It doesn't pull at the national heartstrings like Kent State did, because nobody died, but it's not really any more acceptable. It seems self-evident that these weapons will be used in many more cases than lethal force would be, and in all of those cases someone will be hurt as a direct result of this move toward "nonlethal" weapons, supposedly for our safety!

It doesn't matter whether 'nonlethal' weapons "more often escalate the pain and trauma of troublesome citizens than minimize it." One good question is, how often are they being used against citizens (or noncitizens) who aren't causing trouble? But a better one is, why are we assuming it's ok to intentionally "escalate the pain and trauma" of anybody at all?

If the choice really were between status quo and strictly reducing the number of deaths and injuries, then it would be obvious. But it isn't. Even if it didn't increase the rate of use of force, we would see an increase in collateral damage, because most of these new weapons are much harder to aim with any accuracy (and some, like tear gas, aren't aimed at all). But we can see that it's much worse than that: a mountain of evidence clearly demonstrates that people armed with these things are much more trigger happy than they are with guns. Giving cops "nonlethal" weaponry serves chiefly to injure a lot more innocent people, and make a lot more innocent people mistrustful of cops.

"If a bunch of actual adults suddenly found themselves trapped in high school, the first thing they'd do is form a union and renegotiate all the rules with the administration." --Paul Graham

Posted by blahedo at 5:48pm on 11 Feb 2005
What we really need to do is changed the terminology from "nonlethal" to "less lethal". After reading too many articles of accidental deaths resulting from the use of these weapons, I think it is clear that the former term is a misnomer. Posted by Mark at 2:10pm on 15 Feb 2005
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