What do you call a gun that’s designed not to kill?
Byrna Technologies has been wrestling with that question since at least 2019, Ted Alcorn reported for The Trace last week, when the start-up began promoting such a weapon for everyday Americans. The company tried out a few ideas — “un-gun,” “device,” “launcher” — but, per the Byrna website, appears to have settled on advertising its civilian-market pistols, rifles, and 12-gauge rounds as “less-lethal” products. Byrna is the first company of its kind to make a concerted effort to get its launchers into the hands of as much of the public as possible.
“Less lethal” is likely a term Americans are familiar with; in common parlance, it functions as a reference to a wide swathe of “kinetic impact projectile” devices — including stun guns, rubber and plastic bullets, pepper-spray balls, tear gas grenades, and bean-bag rounds — that have been used primarily by law enforcement in the U.S. for about half a century. And true to the epithet, less-lethal weapons are, in fact, less lethal than firearms: They’re designed to inflict blunt force trauma, rather than permanent injury or death. It’s a form of harm reduction, public health scientist David Hemenway told Alcorn, akin to making Narcan more accessible to reduce opioid deaths.
But that doesn’t mean these weapons can’t cause serious harm. A 2017 analysis of nearly 2,000 injuries sustained by kinetic projectiles found that the vast majority were severe; 300 people were left permanently disabled, and 53 died. The dangers of less-lethal weapons rose to the fore in the summer of 2020, after police across the country injured and maimed scores of racial justice demonstrators with rubber bullets and bean-bag rounds. Just this past March, Amnesty International published a report about the harms and abuse of these devices; the paper is titled “My Eye Exploded.” Alcorn explained another danger: A less-lethal device can inflame tensions in an altercation with a real gun.
The regulatory environment for less-lethal weapons is murky: Rules governing their use by police are inconsistent, and weapons like Byrna’s are not technically considered firearms under federal law. And even in places where the rules are clear-cut, like in San Francisco, enforcement is an open question. Another part of the problem stems from training: A 2005 independent investigation into the killing of a Boston woman by an officer firing a pepper-spray ball concluded that clear policies and training around less-lethal weapon use decreases the likelihood of injury.
The ammo Byrna sells to civilians are not dissimilar to the ones that law enforcement have been fiercely criticized for using: plastic projectiles, and rounds loaded with tear gas and pepper spray. In 2021, its marketing on Amazon also leaned into the fact the devices aren’t regulated like guns: “No permits or background checks required and no waiting periods.”
Lethality was once essential to American gun owners; today, most say they own guns for self-protection. The trade-off of a less-lethal weapon, like a Byrna, lives in its name: It reduces harm, but it doesn’t eliminate it. As Alcorn wrote, Byrna’s products scramble the very concept of a gun. “There’s a fraying of the social fabric around the world. It’s a little scary. On the other hand, people are truly fed up with gun violence,” the company’s founder told Alcorn. “Both are tailwinds for Byrna.”
From Our Team
A roundup of stories from The Trace this week.
The ATF is supposed to regulate the gun industry. Episode 7 of The Gun Machine explores the gun lobby’s efforts to impede the agency.
Lawmakers and advocates say the efficacy of the state’s new red flag law will depend on implementation and enforcement.
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Christopher Blackwell reports from inside a transformative justice group that works to remind incarcerated people that they, too, need healing.
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What to Know This Week
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments for U.S. v. Rahimi, the pivotal firearms case on the constitutionality of a federal policy meant to protect domestic violence victims, and justices appeared receptive to upholding the decades-old statute. The court also added two gun-related cases to its docket: Justices agreed to review a federal ban on bump stocks, and took up a lawsuit by the National Rifle Association alleging that a New York state official violated the gun group’s free speech rights. [The Washington Post/Vox/NBC]
Gun violence figured heavily in several of this week’s mayoral elections: Philadelphia Democrat Cherelle Parker, who pledged to tackle the city’s shooting crisis, unsurprisingly won her bid for the city’s top job. Indianapolis Mayor Joe Hogsett was decisively reelected, beating out a GOP challenger who angered his base with his support for firearm restrictions. And Kimberly Mata-Rubio, a gun safety advocate whose daughter was killed in the Robb Elementary massacre last year, lost her race to head up City Hall in Uvalde, Texas. [Billy Penn/Indianapolis Star/Texas Public Radio]
The release of the Covenant School shooter’s writings has been the subject of an intense legal battle. That didn’t matter to the right-wing YouTuber who published photos of them. [Associated Press/Nashville Tennessean]
When a young person is shot, the trauma reverberates through their whole family, researchers at Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital found. Per their analysis, in the first year after a shooting, both children who endure a gunshot injury and their parents are significantly more likely to be diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder. [KFF Health News/The New York Times/Health Affairs]
The father of the man accused of killing seven people at a Fourth of July parade last year in Highland Park, Illinois, was ordered to serve 60 days in jail after pleading guilty to misdemeanor counts of reckless conduct for helping his son obtain a gun ownership permit when he was too young. [Chicago Sun-Times/The New York Times]
A three-judge panel of the 7th Circuit upheld Illinois’s ban on assault-style weapons and high-capacity magazines, along with several similar local laws in the state, throwing out a lower court’s injunction against the restrictions and affirming other decisions keeping the law intact. The ban was enacted in January as part of a sweeping gun reform package. [Reuters/Chicago Sun-Times]
It’s well documented that parents in America are increasingly anxious about school shootings. As the Israel-Hamas war continues, those who send their children to Jewish schools have an added fear: Their kids could become victims of targeted violence. In New York, those concerns have translated into an influx of armed guards. [Curbed]
In Philadelphia neighborhoods where shootings are frequent, residents have long shouldered the hazardous and traumatic work of cleaning up blood from the scene of the crime — and oftentimes, loved ones of victims undertake the task while they grieve their loss. After years of calls for the city to address this problem, the Police Department is launching a pilot program to provide that service. [WHYY]
Keyshawn Gault, 22, had a remarkable propensity for kindness. He was the type of person who’d make sure every single co-worker at the Sewer Authority started their day with a fist bump, or casually pay for a friend to take an Uber to their job if they didn’t have a ride. Looking after people seemed to come naturally to him. Gault was shot and killed earlier this month on a highway in Buffalo, New York, while he was riding in a work pick-up truck to get lunch; two co-workers who were also in the vehicle were wounded. He was sensitive and gentle, and spoke more often through action than words — but “the words he did say had many meanings,” a colleague eulogized. He wasn’t much one for crowds, but he liked the company at the aquarium in Niagara Falls: “Fish gave him solace,” his mother told The Buffalo News. Gault loved bowling and “a good birthday party,” she said, and he was a dedicated Bills fan. “He was such a pure soul. He touched everyone he was around,” his aunt said. “He wanted to see everybody succeed.”
Voices From Chicago’s Most Violent Neighborhood: “Under that tattered green canopy at the records store, customers will find studio-quality portraits of dozens of loyal customers and ‘at least a million’ records, cassettes and CDs. Most days, they also will find [Marie] Henderson herself, working alongside three generations of her family. She lives a block away in the same graystone house where she raised her children, who for years have tried to get her to move.” [Chicago Sun-Times]
“People who die, they get funerals and balloon releases. Survivors don’t get anything.”
— Oronde McClain, 33, who remains partially paralyzed and endures seizures and PTSD from being shot and wounded as a child, on the trauma of gunshot injury, to KFF Health News