Longform

Shocking Accusations

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Electroshock weapons immobilize a subject through a series of impulse waves that clench the subject's muscles. You are effectively frozen, though your lack of mobility is the very least of your concerns. Your primary concern is the pain shooting between the two electrodes, and you want more than anything for it to stop.

When the current is turned off, the pain ceases as abruptly as it began. Which is remarkable. Normally, when you experience severe pain, you expect it to hang around, gradually fading as your body heals.

This is very different. And afterward, you can suddenly understand why electric shock is considered an effective (if discouraged) way to train animals, or make a human confess information, or make a suspect obey a police officer. Because though the pain stops, the memory of the pain remains vivid.

More than most weapons, electronic weapons are conducive to inspiring a sincerely subservient relationship.

Jack Cover, the inventor of the Taser, noted this phenomenon in his development notes.

"People apparently mentally deranged or drugged engaging in violent actions exhibit a complete personality change after being Tasered," he wrote. "The mood 'swing' from the unreasonable and uncontrollable is to a totally different one displaying reasonableness and willingness to cooperate."

Cover was a physicist with Hughes Aerospace who worked on the Apollo moon landing program. He has cited three sources of inspiration for his invention. In the 1960s, a presidential crime commission announced the need to develop non-lethal weapons to combat hijackers. About the same time, Cover read a newspaper article about a man who was immobilized by a power line for hours, yet walked away uninjured. And Cover recalled the Tom Swift adventure novels he read as a boy, where the young hero invented marvels such as an electric rifle.

Cover spent years developing his stun weapon, testing various electrical impulse combinations on himself, his son and animals. In 1974, Cover introduced the first generation of a weapon he called the TASER -- an acronym for "Tom Swift's Electric Rifle."

Police were initially intrigued, but were less impressed by field performance. The weapon was bulky and not always effective against subjects who were on stimulants such as PCP or cocaine.

Then, in the 1980s, competitors flooded the electroshock market with cheaper and less restricted forms of stun technology, such as hand-held shockers and stun batons. The products began an advertising hyperbole war that continues today.

Read ads for stun weapons, and you'll find an endless amount of voltage huckstering. Stun gun ads routinely claim they produce 100,000, 200,000, even 300,000 volts.

But voltage is not the best determination of a stun weapon's effectiveness. Voltage affects the distance a spark will jump from an electrical source. The primary benefit of higher voltage is that a stun weapon can better penetrate clothing.

Taser International counters that most stun guns -- which are typically powered by one or two 9-volt batteries -- have voltage peaks of 50,000 volts.

Hodgett says Taser International's complaint about fraud in stun weapon ads is probably its one point of agreement with Amnesty International.

The infighting and confusion bolster Amnesty's contention that there is a need for exhaustive independent testing to determine the true effects of all electroshock weapons. Not just for accuracy in advertising, but to determine once and for all whether stun weapons are killing people.


The term "non-lethal weapons" has fallen out of favor. The preferred term, the more accurate term used by many law enforcement agencies is "less than lethal."

"Less than lethal" acknowledges that no weapon is truly risk free. Rubber and wooden bullets can shoot through a person's eye (which occurred during the recent Tucson riot after the University of Arizona's basketball championship loss), and pepper spray can cause a fatal allergic response.

Overall, stun guns have a safe reputation. The amount of electrical current generated by stun weapons is a fraction of the minimal human safety standards set for electrified fences. In one study, the Los Angeles Police Department found a lower rate of injury for both suspects and officers when the Taser was deployed versus methods such as punching, or using a baton or pepper spray.

But, occasionally, a Taser victim dies anyway.

In 1991, the Journal of Forensic Sciences evaluated 16 cases where a person went into cardiac arrest and died subsequent to being shot with a Taser by Los Angeles police. All of the victims had a history of substance abuse and were behaving in a "bizarre or unusual fashion" when the police were called.

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James Hibberd
Contact: James Hibberd