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A guide to non-lethal and less-lethal weapons used in local, national protests

Weapons listed are among those used by local law enforcement agencies or have been reported by reporters and protesters here and elsewhere.

As law enforcement agencies respond to protests formed after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, many are turning to weapons other than firearms to disperse crowds.

The following list includes non-lethal and less-lethal weapons in use locally and across the country, based on reports from local law enforcement agencies and first-hand accounts by protesters and reporters in the field.

Jeff Belzil, security director for the nonprofit International Women’s Media Foundation, and Rohini Haar, an emergency physician and medical expert at the nonprofit Physicians for Human Rights provided information for each category. Belzil teaches seminars for those reporting on protests. Haar is a research fellow at the Human Rights Center at the University of California Berkeley School of Law. Additional information was provided by Kaiser Health News.

Bean bag rounds

What are they? These synthetic cloth bags, about the size of a bean bag, are filled with lead pellets or other metal materials. They can be shot out of a shotgun, but travel with much less velocity than a shotgun shell. They have a range of about 82 feet.

What does it feel like? The bags can cause blunt pain, even if fired from several feet away. At close range, they can break a rib and can lead to death if aimed at a person’s face or throat, Belzil said.

Flash-bang grenade

What is it? These grenades, also known as thunder flashes or stun grenades, unleash a bright flash and a loud bang of about 182 decibels. They are thrown and explode within 1.5 to 2.5 seconds.

What does it feel like? The flash can be the equivalent of 1.5 million lit candles. The sound is louder than that of a jet taking off. It leaves individuals disoriented and can cause ear damage or post traumatic stress disorder. It also can cause severe burns and blast injuries, and panicked crowds can cause crush injuries, according a report by Kaiser Health News.

Pepper balls

What are they? Also known as OC capsules, these small plastic containers are filled with the pepper spray chemical called oleoresin capsicum. The size and shape depend on the manufacturer, but typically they are the size of a paintball round. They can be shot from modified paintball guns or a semi-automatic, less-lethal riot gun and have a range of about 164 feet.

What does it feel like? If hit by one of these, an individual will feel an impact as though they were hit by a paintball. Gas will be released, giving the same effect as being pepper-sprayed at close range — difficulty breathing and eyes tearing up. If aimed at the face at a closer range, these projectiles can cause serious injury, including loss of an eye. At longer range, their trajectories are unpredictable, so they can indiscriminately hit bystanders.

Pepper spray

What is it? Pepper spray can be either natural or synthetic. It’s essentially the same chemical compound that occurs naturally in hot peppers, but in a highly concentrated form. It can be sprayed from an aerosol can or shot out in a pepper ball.

What does it feel like? It can cause a painful, burning sensation on the skin, and cause severe pain and irritation in the eyes, leading people to tear up and lose their vision because they cannot open their eyes. It also can cause respiratory distress, coughing and a feeling that you can’t breathe.

A protester picked up remains of less-lethal devices used at a St. Petersburg protest on June 1. St. Petersburg Police Department spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez identified them as a foam baton round, its silver casing that separates upon firing, and the top of Stinger ball, which makes loud bangs and "has small rubber pellets inside that can sting, but not injure a person." [ JOSH SOLOMON | Josh Solomon ]

Rubber bullets

What are they? A rubber bullet is a common term for a variety of projectiles that can be made of rubber, hard foam, plastic and sometimes metal. There are, for instance, rounds with a hard foam nose close to 2 inches in diameter. They can be fired from a 40 mm riot gun and have a range of about 328 feet. They are not meant to be shot within 131 feet of a person, according to Belzil.

What does it feel like? If hit at a longer range, the projectiles can leave bruises or sometimes penetrate the skin. If used at too close a range, they can break bones, fracture the skull, cause traumatic brain injuries and serious abdominal injuries, as reported by Kaiser Health News. In some cases they have caused death, Haar said.


What is it? Tasers are use by police officers at close range — 10 feet or so — to enable a shock to the body.

What does it feel like? This form of electrocution causes pain, cardiac arrhythmia and pain specifically from the devices’ hooked darts. In a worst-case scenario, they could cause cardiac arrest in a person with existing heart problems.

Tear gas

What is it? Tear gas also is known as CS gas. CS stands for chlorobenzylidene malononitrile. These cartridges of gas are shot out of riot guns indirectly at crowds with an effective range of about 328 feet. A non-lethal grenade containing the gas also can be thrown. They pop open and release gas within a radius of about 32 feet, although Belzil notes that wind can spread the smoke farther.

What does it feel like? It can cause difficulty breathing, eyes to tear up, vomiting and can lead to post traumatic stress disorder. The level of exposure and individual risk factors contribute to the variability of injuries. There could be long-term chemical burns or ongoing lung problems.