THE rising wave of violence worldwide involving individuals and groups who use firearms once again turns the public attention to the question of indiscriminate killing, free access to guns, and the growing tendency to use them.
Can such killing be avoided in Bosnia, India, or the streets of American cities? There may be a way that does not necessarily involve fantasy: nonlethal weapons. The idea is not new. Effective weapons that do not kill, such as a sedating agent or blinding light, can be traced back to the early days of civilization.
Small arms, the most common means of individual fighting, are on the ``light'' side of the weapons-system scale. Pistols and rifles are accessible, inexpensive, easy to operate. The uncontrolled spread of small arms is such that the United States finds itself currently in what seems to be a gun crisis.
The statistics of gunshot deaths and damage are staggering: Over the past two years, firearms have killed 60,000 Americans, more than the number of American soldiers killed in Vietnam. US Department of Justice statistics show that, every 24 hours, handgun-wielding assailants rape 33 women, rob 575 people, and assault another 1,116.
Whether weapons are used in committing a crime or in law enforcement, the intention of most users of small arms is not necessarily to kill but to frighten, to halt action, and to facilitate an arrest. Yet weapons producers work hard on improving the ability of firearms to kill. Nonlethal small arms can achieve the same objectives, but without killing.
Progress in nonlethal technologies is occurring in several areas. For example, laser beams that temporarily blind have been tested and proved effective. This type of weapon, still under development, has attracted interest from special forces, which find it potentially useful in hostage situations, when officers may be forced to shoot indiscriminately once shooting starts.
Another type of nonlethal weapon being developed uses glue-foam pellets. Some tests, using sticky polymers, have been successful. If proven effective, use of this kind of weapon will be one of the lowest-risk measures.
The interest in these types of weapons increased during the Gulf war as a means of reducing the number of casualties - and the media images of casualties - in a conflict. At least 24 different research and development projects involving nonlethal weapons are under way in the US Defense Department. The US Army Armament Research, Development, and Engineering Center (ARDEC) at Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey is currently managing a series of nonconventional, low collateral damage munitions programs.
But the most important element is still missing: public awareness and pressure to enforce the use of nonlethal small arms as a substitute for lethal arms. The legal framework needed to enforce exclusive use of nonlethal small arms will not be simple to develop. Effective implementation of such a framework requires first and foremost a total ban on the use of deadly weapons; lethal weapons will still have the edge in deterrence and fear. To achieve an effective ban of the civil use of lethal arms, legislators will have to define carefully and clearly the fine line between the restricted and permitted uses of deadly weapons - such as for hunting. Legislators also will have to consider that, under the new concept of nonlethal weapons, anyone convicted of illegally carrying such arms will be punished as severely as if he or she had conspired to commit first-degree murder.
Enforcement of nonlethal-weapons use as a total substitute for nonmilitary use of firearms will require a massive educational effort. The concept at first may appear naive and undoubtedly will have to overcome a great deal of prejudice and skepticism. It also will mean finding nonviolent alternatives to dealing with potential lack of inhibitions. The notion presents an interesting challenge for research in a variety of fields, such as law and politics, psychology, and criminal justice.
Although the technological questions surrounding nonlethal weapons are not solved yet, the goals are relatively clear and attainable. They should lead to the next step: effective, cheap, harmless weapons. On the threshold of the third millennium mankind may make a humble start toward a new social contract concerning the use of nonlethal small arms that will add to prospects for human life, human dignity, and law and order. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.