TASER EXECUTIVE SHOWS STUN GUN
Roy Dabner  /  AP
Steve Tuttle, vice president of communications for Taser International, test fires an X-26 stun gun, a model sold to police. A similar civilian model sells for $1,000. The speck near Tuttle's chin is one of several dozen "ID tags" released when the gun is fired.
By Miguel Llanos Reporter
msnbc.com
updated 5/4/2005 12:27:34 PM ET 2005-05-04T16:27:34

It wasn't supposed to be this way. When first pitched to police a decade ago, stun guns and particularly Tasers — the brand most widely used — were heralded as a way to deal with violent individuals without killing them.

Police embraced the weapons at first. But over the years, 103 people have died in North America after being shocked with stun guns, according to a review by Amnesty International. Now, Taser International's safety claims are the subject of a federal inquiry and police departments nationwide are reviewing procedures.

Earlier this month, the International Association of Chiefs of Police urged caution and offered guidelines for using stun guns, including training programs for police.

It's against this backdrop, and the fact that its stock price fell by two thirds after a record high last year, that Taser International has launched a campaign to sell Tasers to civilians. It has come out with a much smaller yet more powerful civilian stun gun and is building a national dealer network, starting with Davidson's Inc., a major gun distributor that's the first to carry Taser's civilian model.

But whether Tasers in civilian hands is a good idea is up for debate. Some police worry about civilians misusing them, while Amnesty International wants an outright ban. "It's a patently bad idea," says Amnesty spokesman Ed Jackson.

And some medical experts want more studies to fully determine if an electrical shock can itself be a significant factor in deaths. The documented deaths have involved at least one of the following factors: suspects who were high on drugs or who had heart conditions, and police using batons or other physical force to subdue suspects once stunned. It's not clear if stun gun use played a contributing role given those other factors.

Company's perspective
Taser executives say that a new $1,000 civilian model of the weapon, which like the police version fires two electrically wired darts that deliver 50,000 volts, is safe and will deter crime, not worsen it.

Anyone who's wary about the technology simply hasn't used it or doesn't understand how it works, said Steve Tuttle, Taser's vice president of communications.

Video: Police & tasers To start with, he said, sales of an earlier civilian model introduced in 1994 topped 100,000 and there's been no epidemic of civilian misuse.

Tasers are safer than other stun guns, he said, because they are the only one that can be fired from a distance; others require actually jabbing the recipient.

In an effort to keep felons or anyone on the U.S. terrorism watch list from buying the weapons, Taser's new civilian model requires buyers to  register their guns and undergo background checks, Tuttle said.

In addition, the model has a built-in tracking device: 20 to 30 tiny red metal flakes called "ID tags" that disperse when the gun is used. The tags are hard to see, and each tells who the gun and cartridge are registered to. Removing the tags disables the $30 cartridge that houses the darts.

Responding to concerns that stun guns can cause deaths, Tuttle said that "medical examiners are clearing us in a vast majority of cases" and compared such fears to those about pepper spray in the 1990s, before that tool became widely accepted.

Civilian stun is longer
Tuttle expects the new civilian Taser to take off in the 43 states where stun guns can be sold.

Just a bit larger than a cell phone, "it's small enough for people to carry," he said, and it's easy to use.

Buyers get a training DVD that's geared toward showing users, especially women, how to use the weapons in a "non-macho way," Tuttle said. There's also a coupon for a free one-hour training course at home with a law enforcement officer.

The civilian model is similar to what police have, with this key difference: Pulling the trigger on the police version provides a five-second stun. The civilian trigger starts at 10 seconds and can be squeezed several times continuously to get a maximum 30 seconds.

The rationale? Five seconds is enough for police to subdue a suspect, Tuttle said, but civilians need a 30-second shock to allow "them time to escape a dangerous situation" by shooting the Taser and running away.

Amnesty: Ban them
But it's precisely that 30-second capability touted by Taser that most worries Amnesty International USA, which first called for a stun gun ban in November.

Video: Pros, cons of civilian Tasers Jackson, the Amnesty spokesman, said he has two questions for Taser: "Who has been exposed to a Taser shot for 30 seconds? And would the executives at Taser be willing to publicly expose themselves to 30 seconds?"

Tuttle dismissed the challenge and countered that "many suspects in the field" have been stunned for "more than 30 seconds" without problems.

Amnesty also doesn't buy the argument that the civilian Taser is easy to use.

If the Taser's two darts don't land far apart enough on a target's body, the effect is diminished, Jackson noted. On top of that, he said, "civilians don't get the 16-hour training for police provided by Taser."

As for registering buyers and tracking Tasers, Jackson called the measures "garbage."  "There are ways to easily circumvent that deterrent," he said, among them stealing someone's Social Security number and other information to make an illegal purchase.

Police concerns
Stun guns, especially Tasers, are unquestionably popular with police. Taser has sold 130,000 units to 7,000 departments in the United States and abroad.

The biggest issue departments are dealing with is whether some officers are misusing the stun guns by either shocking a person for too long or shocking someone who really isn't violent.

Al Arena, who works for the International Association of Chiefs of Police and helped write its stun gun recommendations, believes the tool is valuable as long as police are properly trained.

But he said civilian Tasers could create a deadly situation in an encounter with police: "If you confront someone with a Taser, does it then end up being a situation where you are authorized to use deadly force?"

California ban?
Government officials have their own concerns.

Arizona's attorney general favors police use of tasers, but worries that some civilian buyers might misuse the weapons if the company continues to market them as "non-lethal." He wants Taser, which has headquarters in Arizona, to drop the claim.

In California, state Assemblyman Mark Leno recently introduced legislation to ban personal use of Tasers after having staff research the weapons for the public safety committee that he chairs.

Independent studies should be performed to "learn exactly how dangerous or how safe this is," he told MSNBC.com.

"We're going to allow weapons to be sold to the public and all we know is what the manufacturer is telling us," Leno said.

Taser "dodged" most of the questions his staff asked the company, he said, and the federal Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating Taser to determine if it misrepresented the safety of its products to increase stock value.

"With all of this background I'm smelling smoke," Leno said.

Taser, in a letter to investors last January, said it would "stand firmly behind" its claims during what it said could be a long SEC inquiry.

The company would not comment further given the inquiry, and the SEC said it does not comment on ongoing investigations.

New study on pigs
Another voice that's joined the debate is the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a non-profit group that focuses on science and technology issues. In a new report on stun gun science and policies, it states: "Based on the available evidence, and on accepted criteria for defining product risk vs. efficacy, we believe that when stun technology is appropriately applied, it is relatively safe and clearly effective."

But it added: "We strongly recommend that additional research be conducted" on the potential health effects.

The question for researchers is whether stun guns are a cause of death in some cases and, if so, are precautions possible.

The most significant study is about to get under way. The U.S. Justice Department is funding a test in which Tasers will be shot at pigs, some of which will be drugged with cocaine to mimic a person on drugs. Pigs are being used since their hearts are similar to humans.

Call for standards
The Potomac Institute also urged "industry-driven, government-endorsed standards" for stun guns, noting that "no federal regulative body has asserted oversight" of the weapons. That's partly because they're not considered a firearm.

Samuel Walker, a criminal justice professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, has similar concerns.

"Use of Tasers by citizens poses a risk to other citizens and the police," he says. "There are a lot of questions about availability, sale and licensing" that haven't been fully reviewed.

"I haven't thought this through yet," he said, citing the relative newness of civilian stun guns,  "but certainly there should be regulations similar to firearms."

"Do we want this weapon available to anyone at Wal-Mart?"

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Video: The Taser pitch

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