Public Comment

Guns Don't Kill: It's the Bullets

Gar Smith
Friday September 13, 2019 - 03:24:00 PM

In January 2008, during a botched gas station heist in Oakland, California, a would-be robber fired his 40-caliber handgun at a station attendant. All three shots missed. The first two rounds crossed a busy intersection and smashed through a parked SUV, barely missing the driver. The third bullet plowed through the wall of the Harmony Road Music School, striking a 10-year-old boy, who was in the middle of a piano lesson. The fifth-grader was left paralyzed from the waist down.

This tragic incident illustrates an often-overlooked fact of the gun-safety debate: it's not the guns that injure and kill—it's the bullets. And, too frequently, gunfire creates "collateral damage" with innocent men, women, and children hit by "stray" bullets. As even the National Rifle Association concedes: "A bullet from an errant shot or a miss may fly several miles before it impacts the earth."

The gun-violence debate must address the role of bullets. Blaming firearms without blaming the ammo is like blaming bows while ignoring the arrows—or condemning missiles without mentioning the warheads.

America is caught in the crossfire of a growing problem. According to the Small Arms Survey, one-fourth of Americans are now armed with 393 million firearms—46 percent of the world's privately held weapons. If these gun-owners were actually organized into a "well-regulated Militia," they would constitute an armed force nearly three times larger than all the national armies on Earth combined.

But not a single one of these weapons would pose a threat to human life—if it weren't for bullets. 

"Mushrooms": Death by Second-hand Bullets 

As of September 10, the Gun Violence Archive had recorded 293 mass shootings and 10,359 gun deaths in the US in 2019. The archive also listed 1,056 "unintentional shootings." A paper in the December 1989 edition of The Journal of Quantitative Criminology addressed the issue of "bystanders killed by bullets not specifically intended for them." The victims were identified as "mushrooms," which is "street slang for an innocent bystander who 'pops up' in the path of fire." 

The Giffords Law Center reports that, on average, 100 Americans are killed by bullets every day—making gunfire "the second leading cause of death for all children and teens." But there is little information on how many are killed or injured by stray bullets. The Violence Prevention Research Program at the University of California at Davis notes that, while "stray-bullet shootings affect entire communities every day . . . there has been almost no research exploring them."  

According to The Trace, 150 American children were struck by stray bullets in the first six months of 2017—one every 32 hours. A 2012 UC Davis study found that "nearly one-third of the [stray-bullet] victims were children and nearly half were female." The report identified these victims as "innocent bystanders who typically have no opportunity to flee or take any other preventative measures." More than 68 percent of these stray-bullet victims were killed or injured inside their homes. 

The UC Davis study examined 284 stray-bullet shootings that killed or injured 317 people. One incident involved a New York toddler killed at home by a bullet fired 378 feet away. 

The majority of stray-bullet deaths (59.2 percent) involved gun battles in the streets and neighborhoods of large cities. Only 7.4 percent of the stray-bullet incidents involved hunting or "shooting sports." 

So-called "celebratory gunfire" (when weapons are fired into the air on holidays) accounted for 5 percent of stray-bullet injuries and deaths. (Bullets fired into the sky can travel as high as two miles before falling back to Earth—traveling 300-700 feet-per-second. The mortality rate for the resulting "head-strikes" is around 32 percent—five times deadlier than other bullet strikes.) 

The Psychology of Firearms 

A gun is typically seen as a tool of empowerment but, if we were honest, weapons could be viewed as a sign of insecurity and fear. Someone armed with a weapon enjoys a strategic advantage. This is not heroic. 

During an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Jeff Williams, the mayor of gun-friendly Needles, California, patted the Glock 9mm pistol that he always carries and boasted that his weapon "will throw a big brick at somebody." 

Note: A 115-grain 9mm bullet can travel 1.4 miles and deliver an impact force equal to 368 foot-pounds. You can't toss a brick that fast nor will it deliver the same blunt-force trauma on impact. 

The Physics of Firearms 

There are two main forces that determine the direction of a speeding bullet: velocity and gravity. A high-velocity 9mm bullet flying at 1,300 feet-per-second can travel the length of two football fields. A bullet fired from a .308 hunting rifle can travel 2,700 feet-per-second and cover one-third of a mile. (In January 2018, a US sniper managed to kill an Iraqi "militant" located more than two miles away.) 

But no bullet travels in a straight line. In flight, bullets are constantly falling and (unless they hit something or someone) will eventually strike the ground. A bullet fired from a .22 long rifle, for instance, will fall about 36 inches after travelling 300 yards. 

This is another argument against creating bullets that can travel anywhere from two city blocks to two country miles. The chances of a bullet hitting the intended target steadily fall the further the bullet has to travel.  

Reducing the Stray-bullet Body Count 

A sling without a rock is an empty threat. A catapult without a 100-pound stone block inspires no fear. Similarly, a gun without bullets is just a useless hunk of metal. 

Bullets are designed to kill or grievously wound. Bullets are shaped to pierce human skin. Hollow-point rounds expand to rip large cavities as they travel through tissue. Elongated rifle rounds tumble or burst upon penetration, shattering bones, rupturing blood vessels, and destroying organs as they tear through human bodies.  

If we want to reduce the carnage, the gun industry will need to radically redesign its guns and its bullets. If the goal is "personal self-defense," there is no excuse for a bullet that can travel more than a mile. 

If the goal is "self-defense" a bullet's range could be limited to a distance of, say, ten feet. And self-defense should not require the ability to kill. 

Bullet cartridges could easily be redesigned with reduced explosive power. The explosive charge in many contemporary bullets fills two-thirds of the cartridge—a wasteful overload that extends the bullet's trajectory far beyond any "defensive" requirement.  

Reducing the size, weight, muzzle velocity, range, and impact of bullets would still allow for a deterrent effect capable of distracting, discouraging, and potentially disabling a perceived threat. 

Limiting the power and range of bullets would reduce the likelihood of stray-bullets wounding and killing innocent bystanders on the streets or in their homes. 

Designing "Safer" Bullets 

The arms industry has already demonstrated its ability to redesign its hardware to suit the demands of emerging markets. In the 1980s, after all, Smith & Wesson introduced the LadySmith, a line of "handguns for the modern woman." 

The transition to safer automobiles (redesigned to include seat belts, air bags, and collision-avoidance technologies) took decades but, since the first auto safety laws were enacted in 1965, the number of Americans killed in car accidents has fallen by 80 percent. A transition to less-lethal bullets could be accomplished much quicker. 

In the meantime, there are already examples of Ballistic Arms Reduction programs. 

• The US Secret Service now possesses a P-90 compact machine gun that fires custom-made rounds designed to lodge in the body of the target thus lowering the chances of collateral damage. (Better for bystanders: not so good for the targets.) 

• In 2016, Popular Mechanics hailed the arrival of a new .50-caliber round developed at the US Army's Picatinny Arsenal that was designed to "self-destruct after a set distance in order to limit the damage it would do beyond whatever the gun is aiming at." The half-inch-thick copper jacketed "Limited Range Projectile" contains an embedded pyrotechnic charge that can distort the bullet in mid-flight, causing it to fall to the ground. 

Alternative Ballistics has created a "non-lethal alternative to standard bullets" that consists of a plastic device that snaps over a regular police pistol and positions a large metal ball over the muzzle. When the gun is fired, the exiting bullet embeds in the metal ball, sending the merged projectile toward the target. The striking force is reduced by 80 percent, making it less likely to penetrate the skin. Removing and replacing the device between shots takes less than three seconds. Here is a video of the device being tested. 

• Blunt-Impact Projectiles (BIP) consist of plastic rounds capped with silicone, gel or foam. Fired from single-shot gas launchers, they flatten upon impact and can be adjusted to disperse pepper gas or deterrent aromas—including the smell of rotten eggs and fecal matter. More than a dozen US cities have purchased these "stinky BIPs." 

• Many police departments already employ inexpensive "bean bag" weapons that use socks packed with lead or rubber bullets fired from a shotgun. (Note: Both BIPs and beanbag rounds can be lethal if fired at the head, face, throat, or near the heart.) 

• The XREP is a wireless version of the taser that employs plastic shells fitted with electrodes, a transmitter, and a microprocessor. Upon impact, the electrodes sink into the target's skin and an on-board battery discharges an incapacitating 50,000-volt electrical shock lasting 20 seconds. (Amnesty International cautions that tasers accounted for 500 deaths in the US between 2001 and 2013.) 

• The ML-12 is a two-shot pistol that can fire an array of less-than-lethal (LTL) rounds (bean bags, pepper rounds, rubber bullets, or flares). According to Bruzer Less Lethal International, the ML-12 is now used by more than 100 "small, rural police departments—who prefer it to the TASER because of its lower cost." 

Sadly, while bullets can be reconfigured to be less deadly, the federal government is busy designing new bullets that are even deadlier.  

Case in point: Lockheed-Martin, Teledyne Technologies, and the Pentagon have created the EXtreme ACcuracy Tasked Ordnance(EXACTO), a .50-caliber "smart bullet" that can change course in mid-air in order to follow and kill a moving target. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency proudly calls the EXACTO a "thinking bullet [that] chases its target."  

Some Recommendations 

While awaiting the day when the US Gun Culture is replaced by a New Era of Civility, here are some steps we can take to diminish the dangers of guns and bullets: 

• "Downsize" the weight, shape and power of bullets. 

• Redesign guns to reduce the number of rounds that can be fired. 

• Ban high-capacity magazines. 

• Reinstitute the 1994 federal ban on assault rifles.  

• Ban the ownership of semi-automatic weapons and other weapons of war. 

• Offer a Federal buy-back option for banned weapons and bullets.  

• Promote less-than-lethal options (tasers, sprays, beanbags, wax bullets, fast-acting tranquilizer darts). 

• Require the use of "smart guns" to insure that a weapon can only be fired by its owner. 

• Require universal background checks with a one-week waiting period. 

• Require nationwide permit-to-purchase programs to vet, license, and fingerprint gun owners. (Studies show that licensing is more effective than background checks in lowering rates of gun-linked homicides and suicides.) 

• Enact Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal to raise the federal tax on handgun sales from 10% to 30% and the tax on ammunition from 11% to 50%. (A good step towards Chris Rock's proposal that "every bullet should cost $5,000.") 

And, as we consider a transition to smaller, less-deadly weapons, we might extend our concerns to the purchase and use of air-powered rifles, pistols and BB guns, which pose a public safely risk in the hands of would-be robbers and assailants. Possession of these less-deadly weapons could also require thorough background checks and other safety guarantees. 

It's time to acknowledge that using high-powered guns and bullets for "self-defense" makes as much sense as using Formula 1 racecars to deliver the mail. There are simply better ways to get the job done.