A Shocking Issue

Tasers come under fire

| November 30, 2006

Taser International Inc. touts its stun gun as a nonlethal way to protect handlers from assailants by sending an electric current with up to 50,000 volts of energy shooting into their body. But, as Taser-associated deaths continue to rise, controversy has blasted the company right into court, at least 40 times last year, defending the defense device.

As Silja J.A. Talvi reports for In These Times, the stun gun has not traditionally been subject to the same kinds of regulations as a firearm. Deaths incurred by the weapons have, until now, mostly been considered rare and chalked up to self-defense. This summer, as the death-by-Taser toll reached 200 people throughout the last five years, the US department of Justice announced that it would review those deaths.

Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Research Center at Minnesota State University-Mankato acknowledges in a column on PoliceOne.com that more research into stun gun use is needed, but argues that there would be more horror stories without the Taser. Lewinski claims that even a temporary moratorium on the use of Tasers 'would literally create a catastrophe for peace officers. Lawsuits would increase, officer injuries would increase, subject injuries would increase -- all guaranteed.'

Columnist Rosie DiManno comes to a similar conclusion in the Toronto Star after an expert review absolved the weapon of what DiManno carefully refers to as '14 deaths that occurred in incidents where a stun gun has been applied.' Until studies can prove that Tasers are not safe alternative weapons, it makes sense, she writes, to give police officers stun guns to diffuse violent situations as they escalate. 'Better a Taser than a Glock,' DiManno says, summing up the pro-Taser argument; as an alternative weapon, the stun gun is safe to a point.

Critics maintain, though, that stun guns carry with them an incentive for over-use and abuse. Safety is thrown out the window when, rather than being tapped as a last resort, they're increasingly used out of convenience. Talvi argues that more extensive training on how to safely use the weapons is needed.

Given such a need, the company's silence on Taser abuse and over-use is troubling, Talvi writes. Instead of addressing training issues or acknowledging that the Tasers have a propensity for abuse, the company has launched a pro-Taser web campaign that seeks to dispel the idea of misuse with videos of fictionalized violent scenes depicting potential assailants who prompt police to stun them.

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