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7 June 2001 Edition

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Plastic bullets maim and kill

New lethal projectile is deployed in Six Counties


Let's get one thing straight. Plastic bullets maim and kill and in this respect there is nothing new about the latest development of this lethal weapon. In fact, the British military's own research suggests that the new plastic bullet is even more dangerous, likely to inflict greater injury and result in more deaths. Worse still, a report by the Human Rights Commission exposes the cavalier attitude to the deployment of plastic bullets by the main users of the weapon, the RUC.

The new plastic bullet, known as L21A1, was deployed in the North last Friday but has yet to be used. Its development can be understood on two levels. Firstly, increasing international pressure to ban the use of the plastic bullet reflected in the Patten Report's disquiet has pushed the British government into being seen to be doing something.

The new plastic bullet travels faster, hits harder and penetrates deeper
Patten recommended ``an immediate and substantial investment in a research programme to find an acceptable, effective and less potentially lethal alternative to the Plastic Baton Round''.

Secondly, continuing problems with a weapon that has a history of suffering misfires and breech explosions. Non specific claims that the new plastic bullet is safer begs the question, safer for whom? The new plastic bullet may be safer for the RUC officer discharging the round, but as evidence suggests, is unlikely to be less dangerous for the unfortunate victim.

A report by the British government's `Defence Scientific Advisory Council' based on research carried out by the Ministry of Defence's `Defence Evaluation and Research Agency' at Porton Down identifies ballistic performance rather than `safety' as the main impetus for development of the weapon.

``The L21A1 baton and cartridge have been designed to increase the accuracy of the baton system, to reduce the variability in muzzle velocity and the dispersion of the rounds at all ranges,'' says the Advisory Council.

``To achieve the improvement in ballistic performance, the L21A1 (the new plastic bullet) differs in mass, velocity, shape and material from the L5A7: it is lighter, faster, aerodynamically shaped and manufactured from stiffer material.''

In other words the new plastic bullet travels faster, hits harder and penetrates deeper. The report admits that the new weapon ``is likely to increase the incidence of injuries that are not life threatening such as soft tissue contusion and simple fractures in limbs''. It will also cause greater internal injuries, more serious head injuries and in a direct hit to the head, it could be embedded in the brain.

From the studies on the head, thorax and abdomen undertaken in Porton Down, the Advisory Council concludes that ``the use of the L21A1 is likely to increase the incidence of some intra abdominal injuries... the severity of injuries to the brain is likely to be greater with the L21A1, due to higher pressure on the brain and greater penetration of the projectile.''

And the report continues: ``It is not possible to define quantitatively the patho-physiological consequences of the increased pressure and penetration, but it is judged that the overall clinical outcome will be marginally worse.'' Worse still, ``if the L21A1 does contact the head and it strikes perpendicular to the skull, there is a risk that the projectile will be retained in the head. This is less likely to occur with the L5A7.''

So to recap, the British government's own Advisory Council accepts that the new weapon will injure more people more often, the severity of many of those injuries will increase and if hit on the head the victim will be lucky to survive and unlikely to escape long term disability. Yet they insist the new plastic bullet is much `safer'. Just what do they mean?

Well, it's a bit like claiming a gun is safer than a walking stick as long as it's never fired. The British government is engaged in a cynical manipulation of public opinion that relies on the hope that people like you and me will not read the small print.

The fundamental lie at the heart of the British government's claim is the notion that because the new plastic bullet weapon is more accurate it is by definition safer. After all, suggests the British authorities, a member of the RUC or British army would never wilfully inflict death or injury.

If the new plastic bullet is only ever fired at the optimum range, 30 metres and at the optimum elevation, aimed below the belt, more people will be injured more often and some of those injuries will be more severe but less people would die and only those who ``deserve'' to be injured will be hurt. This, claims the British authorities, means that the weapon should be considered `safer'.

Commenting on the weapon's accuracy, the Advisory Council writes: ``It is assumed that these modifications will lead to a reduction in the inadvertent impact to the head and upper torso of the target and a reduced incidence of unintended impact to others.''

`Assumed', `inadvertent', `unintended' - these words all ring alarm bells. Even within the terms of its own highly dubious definitions, the Advisory Council isn't sure if the weapon is safer. More significantly, the underlining assumption is that death and serious injury only occur by accident. This is of course utter nonsense and flies in the face of over 30 years' experience of the deployment of this deadly weapon.

In the North of Ireland, the RUC and British Army have consistently ignored their own guidelines and deployed the weapon at close range and at head height resulting in many deaths and more serious injury. And not a single member of the RUC or British Army has ever been prosecuted for the misuse of this weapon, indeed prosecution is almost impossible because of a convenient cop out clause within the guidelines.

The use of the weapon at a range less than 20 metres or aiming the weapon to strike at a higher point of the body is only prohibited ``unless there is a serious and immediate risk to life which cannot otherwise be countered''. And who is to determine this `immediate risk'? The British Army and the RUC, of course.

Indeed, the increased accuracy of the new plastic bullet relies on its greater speed, shape and the use of a harder material, together with a new fixed range sight, all new developments that render the L21A1 weapon even more technologically dangerous than its predecessor.

According to US military scientists, a projectile which contains 122 joules of kinetic energy on impact must be considered a lethal weapon. The new plastic bullet has twice that amount of impact energy, 244 joules of kinetic energy.

Moreover, this lethal weapon is in the hands of sectarian and hostile forces, the RUC and British Army, which remain largely unaccountable for their actions. A new report studying the RUC's accountability in relation to the use of plastic bullets by the Human Rights Commission further illustrates this.

Research was carried out by the Commission on 20 files on the firing of 122 plastic bullets by RUC officers between 1997 and 2000. The documents suggested that 48 people had been hit. The Commission was denied access to the most controversial files where there had been a complaint made against the RUC or where the Director of Public Prosecution had become involved.

Despite the limitations placed on the study by an imposed preselection of less controversial cases, the Commission's report accused the RUC of keeping inadequate records. The report found files often took months to complete, the forms used were overtly standardised and inadequate and 72 of the 189 witness statements were not properly signed by the RUC officer making them. In many of the files the chain of authority was not made clear and several of the files were closed when they should not have been.

This is not the first time the notion that greater accuracy leads to greater safety has been used as a smokescreen by the British authorities. Similar claims were made by the British when they replaced the rubber bullet with the plastic bullet in the late 1970s. It was a lie then and it's lie now.

Plastic bullets maim and kill and the only acceptable development is for the British government to adhere to international public opinion and ban them now.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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