Tasers: Stop the Use of this Dangerous Weapon

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Currently,
tasers are used by more than 5,000 law enforcement agencies in the
United States. Electro-shock weapons designed to cause instant incapacitation
by delivering a 50,000-volt shock, tasers are hand-held electronic
stun guns that fire two barbed darts. The darts, which usually remain
attached to the gun by wires, deliver the high voltage shock and
can penetrate up to two inches of clothing or skin. The darts can
strike the subject from a distance of up to twenty feet, or the
taser can be applied directly to the skin. Although a taser shot
is capable of jamming the central nervous system for up to 30 seconds,
it can disable the subject for even longer. And because tasers can
be aimed anywhere on the body, they can immobilize someone more
easily than pepper spray, which must be sprayed in the face.

Taser
manufacturers and law enforcement agencies argue that tasers are
a safer alternative to many conventional weapons typically used
to restrain dangerous individuals. This may be true in situations
where tasers are used as an alternative to other impact weapons
that can cause serious injury, such as batons, or even lethal force.
However, research shows that in many police departments, officers
routinely use tasers primarily as a substitute for low-level force
weapons such as pepper spray or chemical spray. They have become
a prevalent force tool, most often used against individuals who
do not pose a serious danger to themselves, the officers or others.

A
recent study compiled by Amnesty International reports that in instances
where tasers are used, 80 percent of the time they are used on unarmed
suspects. In 36 percent of the cases, they are used for verbal non-compliance,
but only three percent of the time are they used for cases involving
“deadly assault.”

Tasers
have been used on children and unarmed individuals who fail to immediately
comply with officers’ commands. Since 2001, more than seventy
people are reported to have died in the United States and Canada
after being struck by a taser. Most of them were unarmed men who,
“while displaying disturbed or combative behavior, did not
present a serious threat to the lives or safety of others.”
They were subjected to extreme levels of force including repeated
taser discharges even when handcuffed or “hogtied” on
the ground.

In
Florida, a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl was tasered after arguing
with police officers after she and other children were put off a
bus during a disturbance. She was stunned directly to the chest
and then stunned twice from a distance before she was handcuffed.
In Oregon, a newspaper reported that officers use tasers on non-compliant
people “after stopping them for nonviolent offenses, such as
littering and jaywalking.” In Arizona, a thirteen-year-old
girl was tasered in a public library after she threw a book. In
Missouri, an unarmed 66-year-old woman was tasered twice as she
resisted being issued a ticket for honking her car horn at a police
car. In the same state, an officer used a taser on a nine-year-old
girl who had run away from a residential home for severely emotionally
disturbed children. The child was already handcuffed and sitting
in the back of a police car. The taser was used as the officer was
struggling to put leg-restraints on her.

Amnesty
International has expressed its concern that despite the wide use
of tasers, there has been no independent and impartial study of
their use and effects. The group questions the veracity of claims
that existing studies provide evidence proving that tasers are safe.
Among the problems with such studies is that they raise concern
about the effects of a 50,000-volt shock on people with preexisting
heart conditions. No independent studies on the most recently manufactured
tasers, which are much more powerful than earlier ones, have been
conducted to date. The growing use of these weapons, as well as
the number of deaths of individuals struck by them, raises serious
questions.

Furthermore,
the use of tasers in law enforcement raises a number of concerns
for the protection of human rights. Portable and easy to use, with
the capacity to inflict severe pain at the push of a button without
leaving substantial marks, tasers are open to abuse by officers.
Their use often violates standards set out under the UN Code of
Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, which requires that force
be used as a last resort and that only the minimum amount necessary
be used.

Taser
International, the company that manufactures and sells the stun
guns, has sold them primarily to law enforcement agencies. The company
has sold at least 135,000 to such agencies nationwide. However,
since 1994, slightly less powerful tasers have been available for
sale to the general public, although several states and cities restrict
or ban the weapon. A February 2005 ABC news report states that,
just recently, Taser International, in following the money trail,
has begun targeting the civilian population to increase their sales.
The consumer model costs around $1,000 and delivers a 50,000-volt
shock. Although Taser International supports legislation requiring
background checks for taser purchases, there are currently few restrictions
on taser sales.

Far
more alarming even than the inappropriate use of tasers by police
officers is the fact that these weapons are available to the public
in the United States. A silent and instantly crippling weapon, the
taser is ideal for criminals to assist them in robbery, rape, abduction,
etc. An attacker would be able to carry his own personal victim-paralyzing
device, powerful enough to instantly incapacitate the victim and
give the attacker complete control.

Clearly,
government officials should immediately suspend all use of tasers,
at least until a comprehensive medical study can be conducted proving
they are safe to the general public when used by police officers.
Even if such a study is completed, tasers should not be made available
for purchase in the United States by the general public. Indeed,
we must ensure that not only are we safe from police abuse but that
we are also safe from our fellow citizens as well.

March
15, 2005

Constitutional
attorney and author John W. Whitehead [send
him mail
] is founder and president of The
Rutherford Institute
and author of the award-winning Grasping
for the Wind
.

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