Arms race in Baltimore County

June 22, 1993

Baltimore County police are chagrined by news reports that the department has adopted a new bullet for officers' service pistols that critics say will inflict horrific wounds on its victims. The police say that is exactly what bullets are supposed to do -- this one just does it better.

In April the department began switching to a 9mm bullet manufactured by the Winchester Ammunition Co. called the Black Talon. The bullet is designed to expand rapidly upon hitting its target, causing extensive damage to flesh and internal organs and creating a gaping wound channel and massive internal bleeding. The Geneva Conventions outlaws the use of such ammunition in international military conflicts on humanitarian grounds. But the ban does not cover civil strife within nations or domestic police forces.

In what seems like tortured logic, the police argue that their new ammunition is actually more humane than the bullets it replaces. From their point of view, the new bullet is more desirable because it has what firearms experts call greater stopping power -- the ability to disable a potential attacker quickly. Since an expanding slug transfers more of its energy to the target than one that enters and exits the body without slowing down appreciably, a single hit with the new bullet is much more likely to bring any gunfight to a decisive conclusion.

A spokesman for the Baltimore County police says the quicker a gunfight can be ended, the less chance there is for innocent bystanders to be injured by stray shots and ricochets and the greater the margin of safety for the officers involved.

Still, it seems disingenuous to claim that a weapon banned on humanitarian grounds from use against foreign enemies is perfectly legitimate when used against citizens of one's own country. Theoretically, at least, a justifiable shooting in Baltimore County could be grounds for war crimes prosecution if it occurred anywhere else.

The analogy may seem far-fetched, but it points up the basic dilemma facing police departments across the country that are trying to keep one step ahead of the bad guys. Obviously no bullet is "humane," given that its only purpose is to maim or kill. But the solution surely lies in reasonable measures aimed at keeping dangerous weapons out of criminal hands -- not in an interminable, and probably unwinnable, domestic arms race.

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