Non-lethal weapons

Written December, 2014

At first it may seem absurd that types of weapons that have been around since WWI and not designed to kill could be an emerging ethical or policy dilemma. But consider the recent development and proliferation of non-lethal weapons such as laser missiles, blinding weapons, pain rays, sonic weapons, electric weapons, heat rays, disabling malodorants, as well as the use of gases and sprays in both the military and domestic police forces (which are often the beneficiaries of older military equipment).

The Policy for Non-Lethal Weapons from the United States Department of Defense (Directive No.3000.3, 9 July 1996) defines a NLW as a weapon “explicitly designed, and primarily employed, to incapacitate people or material while minimizing fatalities or permanet injury and undesired damage to property and the environment.”

Non-lethal weapons

These weapons may not kill (then again, there have been fatalities from non-lethal weapons), but they can cause serious pain, physical injuries, and long-term health consequences (the latter has not been fully investigated). We must also consider that non-lethal weapons may be used more liberally in situations that could be diffused by peaceful means (since there is technically no intent to kill), used indiscriminately (without regard for collateral damage), or be used as a means of torture (since the harm they cause may be undetectable after a period of time). These weapons can also be misused as a lethal force multiplier – a means of effectively incapacitating the enemy before employing lethal weapons. Non-lethal weapons are certainly preferable to lethal ones, given the choice, but should we continue to pour billions of dollars into weapons that increase the use of violence altogether?

Below are some readings to help you consider the issue and formulate responses:

Non-lethal weapons

What do we mean by ‘non-lethal weapon’?

Non-Lethal Weapon Requirements Fact Sheet (Department of Defense, 2013)

Types of Less-Lethal Devices (National Institute of Justice, 2008)

DoD’s Policy for Non-Lethal Weapons (Department of Defense, 2006)

A Multi-Method Evaluation of Police Use of Force Outcomes: Final Report to the National Institute of Justice (U.S. DoJ, 2010)

An Assessment of Non-Lethal Weapons Science and Technology (National Academies Press, 2003)

On how non-lethal weapons save lives and improve effectiveness:

Nonlethal Weapons and Capabilities (Council on Foreign Relations, 2004)

The ethics of non-lethal weapons: 

Non-lethal weapons

The Fuzzy Ethics of Nonlethal Weapons (Christian Science Monitor, 2003)

The Moral Dangers of Non-Lethal Weapons (Stephen Coleman TED Talk, 2011)

The Paradox of Nonlethal Weapons (Slate, 2012)

There’s No Such Thing as a Non-Lethal Weapon (Vice Magazine, 2014)

Thou Shalt Not Kill, In Theory (The Economist, 2014)

  • Accessible academic studies on the ethical issues that arise:

With Fear and Trembling: A Qualified Defense of “Non-Lethal” Weapons (Dr. Pauline M. Kaurin, via ISME, 2008)

Non-lethal technologies—an overview (Disarmament Forum, 2005)

Use of non-lethal weapons by the military:

Non-lethal weapons

Department of Defense’s Non-Lethal Weapons Program (DoD)

U.S. Military Use of Non-Lethal Weapons: Reality vs Perceptions (Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law, 2015)

The U.S. Navy Wants Non-Lethal Weapons (Popular Science, 2014)

The Military Will Test a New Terrifyingly Loud Noise Gun (DefenseOne, 2015)

Use of non-lethal weapons by U.S. law enforcement: 

Less-Lethal Weapon Options (Police Magazine, 2013)

What The Police’s ‘Non Lethal Weapons’ Can Do To Human Bodies (Think Progress)

Tasers No Longer a Non-Lethal Alternative for Law Enforcement (ACLU, 2012)

Non-lethal weapons

After Controversial Killings, Police Departments Seek ‘Less Lethal’ Weapons (LA Times, 2015)

Nonlethal Weapons Are Much More Lethal Than Police Want You to Think (Policy.Mic, 2015)

Rubber Bullets in Missouri Clash Highlight Militarization of America’s Police (Scientific American)

Department of Defense Fact Sheets on various non-lethal weapons
Active Denial Technology Fact Sheet
Distributed Sound and Light Array Fact Sheet
Escalation-of-Force Mission Modules Fact Sheet
Improved Flash Bang Grenade Fact Sheet
Joint Integration Program Fact Sheet
Mission Payload Module Non-Lethal Weapons System
Non-Lethal Optical Distracters Fact Sheet
Non-Lethal Weapon Requirements Fact Sheet