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Article # 0006

Ethical Considerations with Low-Lethality Weapons

By Tom Cox, P.E.



            Low-lethality weapons, commonly called non-lethal weapons, are nothing new.  Sticks, clubs, rocks and even dirt can, and have been, used in less than lethal confrontations nearly as long as man has been on the planet.  Current technologies have the potential to provide additional means for private citizens to defend themselves, revolutionize the way we wage war, and the way police capture, and restrain suspects.

            Anything used as a weapon is potentially lethal, even an empty hand.  Add a tool into a confrontation, including low-lethality weapons, and the odds of permanent injury or death increase.  A person trained in the use of a weapon is more capable of mitigating the extent of injury he inflicts. It is incumbent upon the user to correctly analyze the threat and respond accordingly.

            There are many types of low-lethality weapons ranging from acoustical and EMF generators to chemicals and biologicals.  Generally, low-lethality weapons are classified as either projectile or non-projectile weapons.   There are also types that use a projectile, but the projectile is merely a means of delivering the actual weapon, e.g. a chemical irritant.

            Projectile weapons typically launch a projectile at the target by means of a gunpowder charge, pneumatic power, or springs.  Some low-lethality weapons are suitable for use in conventional firearms.  These include wood and rubber bullets, “bean bags”, and even nets fired from rifles, pistols, or shotguns.  Other types require a special delivery system such as water cannons or a system that sprays a stream of thick, sticky foam literally gluing the target to the ground.

            The non-projectile weapons include stun guns, low frequency sound generators, microwave weapons, and lasers.  These devices disrupt the nervous system, cause nausea and incontinence, thermal discomfort, and general disorientation.  Many chemical and biological weapons are delivered by dispersion upwind of the target, direct contact with treated surfaces, or through food or water.

            Of course, several devices bridge the gap between projectile and non-projectile weapons.  For example, the TaSER launches two barbed darts in order to deliver an electrical shock disrupting the person’s nervous system.  Other systems deliver chemicals, including sprays and “paintballs” filled with irritating powders or fluids.


General Ethical Considerations

          Upon initial examination, low-lethality weapons appear to be beneficial in that they provide an option in place of lethal force.  After all, is it not preferable to stop an attack by temporarily disabling the attacker instead of killing him?  If a person is mentally deficient or intoxicated, and about to injure himself or someone else, certainly it is better to temporarily incapacitate him without permanent harm or undue risk to others.  Unquestionably, low-lethality weapons do provide a benefit to society under the proper constraints.

            The old saw that says, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail” holds true for weaponry as well.  The absence of conventional weapons will tend to increase the use of low-lethality weapons.  As more people use these weapons, the potential of misuse grows.  These weapons are designed to control people in a non-lethal fashion.  This does not mean that their use does not hurt, injure, or occasionally kill.  These devises are simply an addition to, rather than a replacement for, conventional weaponry.

            Misuse leads to the main ethical problem with low-lethality weapons, namely that the use of force becomes too acceptable.  Unless current laws governing the use of force and deadly force are stringently applied, some armed with low-lethality weapons may be inclined to use them inappropriately.   The common usage of the term “non-lethal” for these weapons contributes to the problem.  Unless exceptionally well trained, most users believe they are non-lethal.  In truth, most of the low-lethality weapons thus far developed can be lethal if excessively or improperly used, or if used against especially susceptible persons.


Ethical Considerations for Military Units

          The military use of low-lethality weapons may be a more humane means of controlling an invaded area.  At the very least, it provides the command another option.  For example, if a population can be incapacitated, disarmed, and restrained without seriously injuring non-combatants or destroying infrastructure, everybody benefits.

            The downside is the justification of going to war because of fewer negative consequences.  The option of low-lethality weapons encourages the misuse of the military as a police force both internationally and domestically.  As long as the action stays non-lethal, the consequences might become acceptable.  While it appears we will never learn this lesson, military training is not readily transferable to police duties, and has rarely been a remedy for international difficulties.  Native populations typically resist an invading force.  Would the United States citizens accept a foreign military police force even if they do not kill anyone?  Would we accept the use of our own military even though it is in violation of the posse comitatus act?  Ideally, countries should pursue a diplomatic solution unless, and until, they are prepared to declare war.


Ethical Considerations for the Police

            The police uses for low-lethality weapons seem obvious.  An officer approaching a potentially violent suspect would be able to incapacitate that person without inflicting permanent bodily harm or endangering the public.  A person threatening to commit suicide could be temporarily disabled and restrained.

            With increasing availability and distribution of low-lethality weapons, the potential for misuse would rise.  Perhaps the police would temporarily disable everyone in an area of a crime until they find the suspect.  An unpopular group picketing the government might be easily dispersed.  Would the community and press object to such actions if no one died?

            Acceptance of the use of force is the main problem with allowing routine police use of low-lethality weapons.  While there are certainly some circumstances that would benefit by their use, the potential infringements on the liberties of a free society are too great.  Many of these weapons are ideal implements to encourage suspects to talk, resulting in torture.  As readily as our society has accepted strip searches in order to board an airplane and the imprisonment without trial of suspected terrorists, I fear such measures might become acceptable on the premise that the crime rate is reduced.


Ethical Considerations for Private Citizens

            Even though most states now allow some form of licensed concealed carry of firearms to their citizens, at times a low-lethality weapon is the only lawful option for the private citizen to have on or about his person.  Those living or traveling through non-right-to-carry areas must chose to violate the law, be unarmed, or carry an alternative weapon.  The low-lethality weapons provide an option in these circumstances.

            For the private citizen there are two major ethical dilemmas.  The first consideration is improperly, or ineffectually, using the weapon due to the lack of training and continued practice.  Secondly, as with the police and military, the use of these weapons is too easy to justify because of the belief that they are safe.

            Most weapons, conventional or low-lethality, require a commitment of time to use them effectively.  A person that chooses to be armed should train and practice with the weapon in order to acquire and maintain competence in its use. The private citizen is often too busy with their jobs and lives to devote the time and effort required to gain satisfactory proficiency with a conventional firearm, TaSER, or a knife.  Some low-lethality weapons e.g., stun guns or pepper spray, operate at very short ranges and only require pressing a button and thus require less training to be used effectively.  These types of weapons provide another option for those that cannot or will not train.

            The misconception that the low-lethality weapons cannot cause permanent injury or death often leads the public to view these devises as toys.  This has lead to the misuse of the weapons against friends and family as a joke.  Just as violence on television, movies, and video games is been linked with increasing antisocial behavior, the misuse of low-lethality weapons tends to increase society’s tolerance to violence.


Ethical Considerations for Engineers/Developers

            The designers of new low-lethality weapons need to consider the applications and weigh the probability that the weapon will be used in an unacceptable manner verses the benefits that result from the justifiable use of the weapon.  The considerations may vary according to the anticipated end-user of the weapon.  A device intended for use by a private citizen, for example, would need to be easier to maintain and use than one intended for the military.

            With any weapon, reliability and efficacy must be a major consideration.  If the weapon fails to function, or is ineffective an unreasonable proportion of the time, legitimate markets will reject the design.  One of the worst things that can happen with a conventional firearm is hearing “click” instead of “bang”.

            If the device operates over long distances then the aiming and control of the device is far more critical than one with a limited range.  If the devise requires a consumable, be it electric power, projectiles, or a chemical, there should be dependable indication of the remaining supply and a means to replenish it in the field.

            There is a need for long-term tests to determine the effect of single and multiple exposures to many of these weapons.  Even more importantly, the effects of repeated exposures to the user and bystanders need to be addressed.  Some of the chemicals used may have mutagenic effects.  The electrical stun guns may produce permanent neuralgia.  The lasers may cause irreparable damage to the eyes.  These possibilities need detailed study with the results publicly disclosed.



          As with many ethical discussions, minor changes in circumstances will dramatically alter the conclusion.  As long as conventional weapons are available, low-lethality weapons provide alternative solutions for the military, police, and armed civilians.  Their proper use can save lives, limit property damage, and enhance the security of the populace.

            The drawback to low-lethality weapons lies in their misuse and the acceptance of their misuse.  Whether the misuse is by the state suppressing a peaceful assembly of the people, the military torturing a prisoner of war, or simply by the misinformed prankster increasing the level of violence in society.


About the Author

          Tom Cox owns an engineering consulting firm and this site.  He is an American Society of Combat Martial Artists certified instructor and Life Member of the United States Practical Shooting Association.


Article # 0006         TEST QUESTIONS:

1.   What are the two main classes of low-lethality weapons?

  1. electrical and chemical

  2. projectile and non-projectile

  3. chemical and biological

  4. projectile and electrical

2.   What is the main ethical problem associated with the misuse of low-lethality weapons?

  1. that the user is often injured

  2. that the weapon is ineffective

  3. that the use of force becomes too acceptable

  4. All of the above

3.   Which of the following are examples of low-lethality weapons?

  1. stun guns

  2. water cannons

  3. rubber bullets

  4. All of the above

4.   The military use of low-lethality weapons provides what benefit?

  1. another option for the command

  2. decreased use of conventional munitions

  3. a means of interrogating prisoners of war

  4. All of the above

5.   The misuse of low-lethality weapons by the military encourages what?

  1. the hazing of personnel during field promotions

  2. using the military as a police force

  3. enemy forces to attack

  4. All of the above

6.   What are the weapon choices for a private citizen traveling through states with non-right-to-carry laws?

  1. never carry a weapon

  2. carry a firearm in violation of the law

  3. carry a low-lethality weapon

  4. All of the above

7.   Basically, low-lethality weapons are designed to do what?

  1. end the need for guns

  2. make the world less hostile

  3. control people

  4. All of the above

8.   What long-term tests need to be disclosed to the public?

  1. environmental concerns

  2. the effect of single and multiple exposures

  3. market research

  4. All of the above

9.   What is one major consideration in the design of any weapon? 

  1. the reliability of the weapon

  2. the placement of warning labels

  3. the price of weapon

  4. All of the above

10.   Which unethical uses are low-lethality weapons ideal for?

  1. treated as toys

  2. torture

  3. suppressing picketers

  4. All of the above


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