A handful of companies are making billions selling “less-lethal” weapons to police, militaries, and governments around the world. The consequences are devastating, as journalist Wil Sands knows all too well: He was shot in the face with a projectile while covering a 2020 protest against police brutality. (Read more about the experience of survivors like Sands in Long Lead‘s project “The People vs. Rubber Bullets.”) As a physician tells Sands in this piece for WIRED, less-lethal weapons are “as dangerous as the person firing them wants them to be.” Sands’s story is an examination of a problematic industry’s past, present, and future, told through an urgent personal lens:

The theory behind all less-lethal crowd-control devices, from the simple billy club to the infrared laser dazzler, is that they allow security forces to suppress a riot without committing a massacre. Law enforcement and military experts have described them, again and again, as a “humane” alternative to conventional arms—and often as the frontier of high-tech innovation. Perpetually just around the corner, it seems, is the widespread adoption of futuristic weapons like sticky foam, net guns, and heat rays. 

That rhetoric obscures how remarkably stagnant the main menu of less-lethal crowd-control weapons has remained. Tear gas has been around for about 100 years, rubber bullets for 50, flash-bang grenades for 45, and Tasers for 30. The language has also masked how brutal these weapons can be, and how much they’ve been neglected by oversight bodies. Tear gas — probably the most important less-lethal weapon for crowd control — has been prohibited for use in war since the 1925 Geneva Protocol. But no international treaty bans countries from using it against their own citizens. Less-lethals are also specifically excluded from the 2013 Arms Trade Treaty, a binding agreement that prohibits the sale of weapons to countries with documented human rights abuses. And in the United States, the world’s leading producer of less-lethals, no federal legislation specifically regulates their manufacture. 

Unhindered by the kind of oversight on production, sale, use, and export that applies to typical small arms, the less-lethals industry has been left pretty much to its own devices. It is to the armaments trade what dietary supplements are to the pharmaceutical industry: a supposedly more benign sector that is, in practice, largely unsupervised and often slipshod.