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What Nonlethal Weapons Can Be Used by the Police?

Kelley studies social issues, including crime, punishment, the Drug War, and America's criminal justice system.

Man fires a pepper spray gun

Man fires a pepper spray gun

Many less-than-lethal weapons have been developed for use by the police and/or the military

In recent times, many suspects—some of which unarmed—have been shot and even killed by police officers—and this use of deadly force may not have seemed justified. So, one may wonder: Are there other ways of dealing with unruly people, defiant suspects or dangerous criminals that doesn’t require the use of deadly force? Please keep reading to see a list of the various nonlethal substances and devices used by the police:


In the United States, the use of nonlethal weapons by law enforcement began in the middle 1800s. While patrolling America’s city streets, cops in those days often carried a nightstick or other type of club or baton. (Many nowadays still carry them while walking or driving.) But, as anybody who has been hit by one of these weapons can attest, their usage can inflict great harm or even cause death!

Then, by the middle 1900s, cops began using other nonlethal—or usually nonlethal —means for subduing or capturing suspects or deterring unlawful activity.

Pepper Spray

Not surprisingly, pepper spray contains capsaicin, the stuff in chili peppers that makes your eyes water and your nose run like a faucet. Its biggest advantage in subduing uncontrollable folks is that it causes temporary blindness and difficulty breathing, the effects of which lasting from 30 to 60 minutes. Pepper spray can also be used against other mammals, especially dogs and bears. Unfortunately, pepper spray has contributed to the death of some people, particularly those with asthma or other respiratory ailments.

Chemical Mace (Tear Gas)

Mace is an aerosol spray containing tear gas, a lachrymatory agent, as well as hydrocarbon solvents. Where legal, private citizens can purchase a small can of mace and use it for self defense. Like pepper spray, but more powerful, mace attacks the eyes, lungs and mouth, inducing pain, skin irritation, vomiting and temporary blindness. As for tear gas, it is often used for riot control and in warfare. Interestingly, tear gas was first used in warfare during World War One, presumably before the use of poison gas, which, of course, is quite harmful and often deadly.

Bean Bag Round

A bean bag round is a shotgun round that contains a square-shaped, fabric “pillow” holding about 40 grams of lead shot. This round is designed to cause no penetration and minimal long-term damage, yet often causes muscle spasms, allowing police time to subdue suspects. The effective range of a bean bag round is about 20 yards. But people have been killed by bean bag rounds, because, after all, they are projectiles; and, sometimes, police accidentally use regular shotgun rounds when they’re supposed to being using bean bag rounds!


The Taser is an electroshock weapon developed in the 1970s. Using compressed nitrogen charges, it fires two hook-like electrodes that send an electrical current into a person, causing involuntary muscle spasms. The weapon can also be used without propelling electrodes, producing instead an electrical arc that can be thrust into a person. Tasers are designed to be used instead of firearms, greatly reducing deaths in the process; fewer injuries to police officers have been achieved with its use as well. Unfortunately, cardiac arrest has resulted from the use of Tasers, so its usage is not completely nonlethal! Incidentally, the police officers on the TV show Cops Reloaded tend to use the Taser more than any other nonlethal weapon.

Interestingly, according to a report by Reuters news, since the use of Tasers became widespread in the 2000s, 1,081 people in the US have been killed by the use of Tasers, including 49 in 2018. Most of these police suspects or unruly or dangerous people had risk factors such as drug use, serious physiological and/or mental conditions. Very young or very old people also had a higher chance of being injured or killed by the use of Tasers. Therefore, some communities are changing their guidelines for police usage of Tasers.

Stun Gun

Similar to the Taser, stun guns are designed to stun or incapacitate a person by touching them with the electrodes of this electrical device. These stun guns come in various sizes and shapes. The baton-like cattle prod is one such device, which was developed in the 1950s. (It can be used on people too, of course. ) One such stun gun looks like a smart phone; another is included in a long flashlight. Stun “rounds” can also be fired from shotguns.

Web Shot

Inspired by Spiderman comics and movies, this shotgun-like device fires a Kevlar net, which, traveling at about 65 mph, wraps up the suspect or criminal in a spider-like fashion, until police can handcuff him or her.

Laser Rifle

Lasers can be used for many battlefield applications, including knocking aircraft or drones from the sky, but a similar device can be used against disobedient folks or criminals. The Dazzler or PHASR weapon, a rifle-like, hand-held device, is an energy-directed weapon, a burst of low-intensity radiation from which can temporarily blind or disorient a person. Similar laser rifles can be used to inflict permanent blindness on people, but the use of these devices is banned by United Nations’ protocols.

Sticky Foam

Guns have been developed that can fire multiple rounds of compressed “tacky” or tenacious foam, which can entangle or impair suspects. Thereafter, this sticky foam must be removed by using strong solvents. Unfortunately, this gummy, blobby stuff cannot be applied quickly, allowing people time to escape its usage; nevertheless, if you can get enough of it on somebody fast enough, it may smother that person, though this may result in the person’s death!

Stink Bomb

Another way of getting rid of people quickly without firing lethal projectiles at them, the stink bomb is truly a nonlethal device, as nobody has died from smelling something terrible, have they? Stink bombs often use sulfur-based compounds that smell like human feces, rotten eggs or decaying flesh, while some bombs hit you with a repellent “cheap perfume” smell. Interestingly, the American military has super stink bombs that can be fired from artillery!

Rubber Bullets

Rubber bullets are exactly what the name implies, bullets made of rubber or metal rounds covered with rubber. However, in current times, many rubber bullets have been replaced with plastic bullets, which don’t bounce uncontrollably and are not as lethal. (Wax, wood or sponge may also be used.) These types of projectiles are known as baton rounds. In use since 1970 in the US and other countries, rubber bullets can—and have—inflicted serious injuries or death and are therefore primarily used against large numbers of riotous people in military contexts, in which casualties may be easier to accept.

Water Cannon

Water cannons have been used by police for riot control. These devices are similar to pressure washers but not as powerful. But a stream of water directed at somebody, constituting a kind of projectile, can cause bodily injury or death.

Anesthetizing Gas

As used during the Moscow Theatre Hostage Crisis in 2002, Russian military units used fentanyl-laced gas to anesthetize or otherwise deter Chechen terrorists who had abducted 700 hostages. But some terrorists donned gas masks, thereby avoiding the soporific effects of this opioid gas. Unfortunately, this gas was so powerful it killed 130 of the hostages. Russian Special Forces nevertheless killed all the terrorists with either gas or gunfire.

Flashlight Gun

Designed for usage by U.S Navy Seals, this flashlight-like weapon can hit people with an adjustable beam of LED light that can cause people to become disoriented and/or nauseous. Other simpler and cheaper flashlight weapons can hit people with a beam of light that is 100 times as bright as the average flashlight, essentially blinding people by the light!


Looking something like a Taser, the BolaWrap fires an eight-foot Kevlar cord with four pronged hooks on each end. The cord is designed to wrap around suspects twice, essentially tying them up, so the police can subdue them in a nonlethal way. Its range is 10 to 25 feet. Each BolaWrap costs about $800.


Caltrops are iron, tripod-shaped devices with sharp spikes pointed upward. Designed to foul or puncture the tires of vehicles, they can also be used to deter crowds of people from entering a restricted area. People wearing no shoes or lightly made ones would be particularly vulnerable to these devices.

Pepper Spray Guns

These nonlethal weapons shoot a frangible projectile—often in the shape of a ball—and filled with either pepper spray, mace or tear gas. Fired from a pistol or rifle that resembles a paintball gun, pepper spray guns are designed to fire at an attacker standing 10 to 20 feet away. Users of these weapons are advised to hit the attacker in the torso and never in the face, eyes, throat or spine, where serious injury may occur, after which a lawsuit against the shooter could be initiated!

Heat Gun

This so-called Active Denial System (ADS) can be used to hit people with a beam of microwave radiation, which shakes up the fat and water molecules in people’s skin, essentially cooking them like chickens in a microwave oven. Understandably, people subjected to such radiation will scatter within seconds. But these microwaves will heat up just about anything else in the area and can also be used to inflict radiation burns or, if the beam is adjusted to high intensity, kill people within seconds!

Generally mounted on a truck, different versions of the ADS are being tested - weapons that can be deployed on ships or aircraft, or much smaller and lighter weapons that can be carried by the police or soldiers. The range of the ADS could also be increased to over the 200 to 700 meters now possible.

Vortex Ring Gun

The vortex ring gun fires small rings of gas at supersonic speed. People hit with these rings will generally drop to the ground, allowing police time to cuff them. Or these propelled rings of gas can be used to mark people with dyes or douse them with malodorous or incapacitating chemicals. Only considered for military use, the vortex ring gun has a range of about 100 feet, but has never been considered feasible for usage on the battlefield or by the police. But, as research continues, its usage could change in the future, of course.

Heat gun, an active-denial system

Heat gun, an active-denial system


In the early twenty-first century, Americans have seen a troubling increase in the shooting deaths of unarmed suspects. One of these unfortunate people was Amadou Diallo, a young black man who had emigrated from Guinea. Many other unarmed black men, as well as men and women of other races or ethnic groups have been shot and killed by police. Could nonlethal means or weapons have been used instead, saving numerous lives in the process?

Now may be the time for the police to rely much more heavily on the use of nonlethal weapons. As the aforementioned list shows, many such weapons exist. But perhaps new ones need to be developed, ones that are much more effective, easy to use – and never lethal. Then one day we may look back on these seemingly barbaric times and wonder why we allowed so many unarmed suspects to be killed without doing something to reduce or even eliminate such killings.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Questions & Answers

Question: Are heat guns being used against the caravan?

Answer: As far as I know, heat guns are not being used against the migrants.

Question: Is there an Active Denial Weapon that could be used at a distance of one mile or so against illegal border crossers?

Answer: The so-called heat gun could be used for this purpose, but its range is much less than one mile. If any other nonlethal weapon could be used at that distance, I don't know what it is.

Question: What about the police using incapacitating drugs?

Answer: As far as I know, drugs, which could be used in a gaseous form, aren't used for subduing suspects or lawbreakers, but it's not a bad idea.

Question: Is there a non-lethal gun police use that utilizes cold temperatures?

Answer: I've never heard of a nonlethal (or lethal) weapon that uses cold temperatures to subdue, injure or kill people.

© 2016 Kelley Marks