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I’ve often wondered why so many innocent people who are shot by police end up dead.
Granted that police officers spend a fair amount of time training with their service revolvers, and are thus likely to be better shots with a pistol than your average gun-owner. But even so, in so many cases where some unarmed person is shot by police, the result is death, and it makes you wonder how cops, often in the dark and on the run, manage with their notoriously hard-to-aim pistols to hit a vital organ with such depressing regularity.
The answer, I’ve learned, is that police in most jurisdictions these days routinely use hollow-point bullets, which are designed to do maximum damage to soft tissue targets. Because the tip of the projectile is composed of hollowed-out lead, it flattens on impact and spreads out, vastly enlarging the hole made upon entry into a body, causing catastrophic damage to vital organs, internal bleeding and wounds that are hard to repair even in an emergency room.
Just recently, we learned that the Department of Homeland Security, a super-agency established by Congress and the Bush-Cheney administration in the wake of the 9-11 attacks, had ordered 450 million rounds of .40 caliber hollow-point ammo, which will reportedly be used at a rate of 90 million shells a year over the five-year life of the contract. (That represents one bullet for every American citizen over the course of the next four years!)
The Department of Homeland Security told us that it has 135,000 personnel who are licensed to carry a weapon. That means the DHS is buying 667 bullets a year for every one of those people. Let’s say that each of those people runs through three gross of shells in annual training at a shooting range, which would represent a fair amount of target practice. That would still leave them with 235 deadly shells left to account for — and remember — this being the government, most of those licensed fire-arm carrying people are working desk jobs where most of their shooting involves their mouths or balled up paper fired at wastebaskets.
The justification given by the DHS and also by local police departments like the Philadelphia Police and the New York City Police for issuing law-enforcement personnel deadly hollow-point ammo is that it is “less likely” to cause collateral damage. That is, a hollow-point bullet, because it expends its energy by expanding and ripping its way through a body, is less likely to pass through an intended target and, perhaps, wound an innocent bystander. The less-discussed purpose, though, is that police want to do the maximum damage to a perp when they decide they need to shoot. Arguably that makes sense. Police are not supposed to shoot people unless they feel personally at risk or think others are in danger, and then the goal is to shoot to kill, not to wound.
The trouble, of course, is that police aren’t all that great at knowing when a fleeing person is guilty of a crime, or even armed, or even whether the target might be a kid with a toy gun, and when a hollow-point bullet hits an innocent target, as was the case with the bullet fired by an off-duty Chicago cop into the head of Rekia Boyd, a 22-year-old woman standing in a group of men the cop thought were being too noisy, she didn’t have a chance of survival. His hollow-point shell, fired wildly, instantly destroyed her brain.
There’s a reason that the US military is banned from using hollow-point bullets in war. Hollow-point bullets do incredible damage, cause more pain and suffering, and make it far less likely that a person who is wounded will survive, much less recover. This ban was put in place in the Hague Convention of 1899, making it one of the first rules of war aimed at limiting the atrocities of combat. (Ironically, the US military does allow hollow point bullets to be used by military police, just not for shooting at enemy combatants.)
This huge order by the Department of Homeland Security raises a number of questions that should be getting asked, but so far are not.
First of all, why does the DHS need so much deadly ammo? Are they anticipating a mass surge over the Mexican or Canadian border that would require ICE agents to slaughter the masses “yearning to breathe free”? Are there so many terror cells in America that they feel they need to be ready for a mass extermination campaign? Or are they worried that eventually the quiescent and submissive US population will finally decide it’s had it with the crooked banks and insurance companies, and are going to start taking the law into their own hands, so that the government will have to institute martial law and start gunning down masses of citizens?
If not any of the above, it seems to me that the order for 450 million rounds of ammunition, hollow-point or not, is pretty wildly excessive.
But secondly, I’d suggest we need to rethink this domestic obsession with killing. In the U.K., police are not routinely issued hollow-point rounds. Many other foreign police agencies also do not use them. Here in the US though, they are standard-issue for cops on the beat.
We need to have a national discussion about this American obsession with officially sanctioned killing. Sure cops need to defend themselves against criminals who would try and injure or kill them, but given both the potential for killing the wrong person or someone who is being falsely pursued — for example someone who thinks a plainclothes officer is actually a criminal — and the near certainty that the target of a police shooter will be horribly injured if he or she doesn’t die — do we really want to have police using bullets that soldiers are barred from using in combat?
Finally, when it comes to Homeland Security, the situation is really different. Most of the gun-toting officers working for Homeland Security are not in the business of chasing down vicious killers. They are ICE officers who are going after border crossers, TSA personnel who are patting down air travelers, and the Federal Protective Service, who are really glorified building guards tasked with protecting federal property.
The work these armed personnel do can on occasion be dangerous, I’ll grant, but for the most part their work does not require killing people or dodging bullets. Do we really want them shooting to kill with hollow-point bullets?
The question about hollow-point bullet use by police, and especially federal agents, becomes more critical as we see the nation becoming increasingly brutal totalitarian in its handling of dissent and protest. As University of Alabama law professor Ronald J. Krotosznski Jr. wrote in an op-ed article in the New York times yesterday, police and federal authorities are making plans to essentially crush protests planned for the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Florida, and the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. this summer. Inevitably, of course, there will be protesters who will not take such repression lightly, and who will resist — perhaps with some degree of violence (fists, kicks, tossing back of tear-gas canisters, and perhaps even rocks, though on the basis of past evidence, probably not guns or other deadly weapons). Do we want such justifiably outraged citizens, who are simply reacting appropriately to the shredding of their First Amendment right to protest and to petition for redress, to be blown away by police firing hollow-point bullets?
Those who answer Yes! have basically abandoned their country and handed it over to the fascists and crypto -fascists who have been gradually dismantling the Constitution. Those who answer No! need to demand that this obsession with up-arming the nation’s police be halted in its tracks.
Dave Lindorff is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia.