Riot control guns: the different choices made by European nations

Paris – The use of rubber bullets by security forces has become a major source of controversy in France because of dozens of injuries to people during violent demonstration by “yellow vest” protesters.

Campaigners lost a legal bid on Friday to suspend their use in France.

Elsewhere in Europe, few countries use an equivalent of the handheld “defensive ball launcher”, known by its French initials “LBD”, which fires a 40-millimetre rubber projectiles.

 

– Rarely authorised –

 

Scandinavian nations have decided to do without this weapon, which is marketed as being non-lethal.

Controversial French police weapons

Security forces in Ireland and Austria have also declined to buy it, as have their counterparts in Kosovo, a nation that has a history of violent demonstrations.

Rubber bullets have officially been outlawed there since 2007, after the deaths of two protestors associated with Vetevendosje, a leftist, nationalist opposition party.

Elsewhere in the Balkans, the Serbian police can use these weapons, but only in cases of particularly violent demonstrations. In practice, they have not been used in more than a decade.

In Croatia, they are also legal. But according to a police spokesperson, they haven’t been used since the nation’s independence in 1991.

In Germany, rubber bullets aren’t authorised in most of the country.

Only one in 16 states allows their use during law enforcement operations, according to a parliamentary document cited by Sebastian Roche, a criminologist at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

 

– In the United Kingdom: memories of The Troubles

 

Following the conflict in Northern Ireland, the use of rubber projectiles by police forces had become taboo in the United Kingdom.

The bullets used at the time, which were of a different calibre than those currently allowed in other European countries, were blamed for the deaths of several people before they were replaced by a safer weapon.

After riots in several large British cities in 2011, the police once again obtained the right to use rubber bullets, known as attenuating energy projectiles (AEP), and also armoured vehicles, in case of civil unrest.

But their use, as well as the use of tear gas, remains rare in the United Kingdom and is authorised only when police face armed individuals.

In Belgium, the federal police don’t have a weapon like the LBD. “We don’t anticipate equipping ourselves in this way,” a spokesperson said.

However, some local police have them at their disposal.

For example, the Belgian FN303 launcher is furnished to police in the city of Mons. The parameters for use are narrow: intervention in prisons or the urgent neutralisation of a dangerous person in a public place.

In Portugal, police may resort to the use of defensive ball launchers.

 

– Controversy in Portugal and Spain –

 

Earlier this month, police used them in response to demonstrators throwing stones on the in Lisbon, wounding an 18-year-old man in the forehead by one of these projectiles.

In Spain, riot police are authorised to use rubber projectiles, but their use is a controversial topic.

A protester lost an eye on October 1, 2017 during clashes police at the time of the interdiction of the referendum for self-determination in Catalonia.

French ‘yellow vest’ leader injured during Paris protest

Regional police in Catalonia and Basque country have renounced the use of rubber bullets after two incidents in 2012: the loss of an eye by a demonstrator in Barcelona and the death of a supporter of the football club, Athletic Bilbao.

In November 2018, a Basque police officer was sentenced by a court in Bilbao for having ordered the attack during which the fan was mortally wounded. The officer was deemed unfit and the attack unjustified.

According to a Catalonian organisation, “Stop Bales de Goma” (Stop Rubber Bullets), which campaigns for their ban, rubber bullets have led to at least nine deaths since 1976.

By Grégory Danel with AFP bureaus across Europe