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December 06, 2004
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TASER Ad Blitz Touts Consumer Stun Gun

By Barbara Yost, The Arizona Republic

Just in time for the holiday season, Scottsdale-based Taser International is marketing a consumer version of the electric stun gun carried by police officers nationwide.

A newspaper and billboard advertising campaign began this month in Phoenix, the only city where the advertisements are running.

Tasers fire a pair of darts that deliver a debilitating electrical charge. The stun guns are used by about 1,150 law enforcement departments and have been credited with reducing police shootings.

"Given the violence out there and the overall success with law enforcement, this is the operative tool for self-defense," company spokesman Steve Tuttle said. "It can stop the most dangerous individuals, which most non-lethal weapons cannot. This is the answer to stop those people safely."

But while the company insists Tasers are non-lethal, some evidence links them to deaths.

The Arizona Republic uncovered autopsy reports that connect the more-powerful law enforcement stun guns to six deaths and found they could not be ruled out in two others. On Tuesday, Amnesty International will release a report detailing what it says are 74 Taser-related deaths.

Two other Tasers have been available to the public, the M18 and M18L, but this is the first time the company has launched an all-out advertising blitz to market a smaller, lighter model, the X26c.

The X26c is smaller than the police model. It delivers the same shock but at a slower pulse rate. It costs $999 and comes with a 30-minute instructional CD and a coupon for an optional 60-minute in-home training class.

Tasers more easily immobilize someone than pepper spray, which must be sprayed in the face. Tasers can be aimed anywhere on the body, but work best when shot at muscular areas. A Taser shot jams the central nervous system for up to 30 seconds and could disable the attacker longer.

Because of their cost, Tasers are not as accessible as lower-cost self-defense products. And because of their size (too large for a medium-size purse), they are not as easy to carry, though you can use a holster.

The consumer Taser looks somewhat like a gun, weighs about as much as a cellphone and is simple to shoot, with a laser beam guide and no recoil. However, just like a gun, inexperienced users may have a hard time hitting a moving target. The X26c has a range of up to 15 feet, with seven to 14 feet being the optimum range for safety and accuracy.

Arizona lawmakers have not imposed restrictions on the devices.

"For me, it''s a wait-and-see situation," said Sen. Bill Brotherton, D-Phoenix, noting that the optional training is more than a gun buyer receives. "I would prefer people carrying Tasers to defend themselves instead of a firearm."

Sen. Harry Mitchell''s first reaction to a newspaper ad for the new Taser was alarm that robbers could use the stun gun. "Then I started thinking that at least no one would get killed with it. If people feel they need it for personal safety, I don''t have a problem with it."

However, he recommends that the devices be licensed.

John Kennedy, 61, who became a certified reserve officer with the Maricopa County Sheriff''s Office in 1974, swears by the Tasers. The Mesa resident, who also owns a gun, keeps an older model Taser in his car. The new consumer version is "definitely an improvement over people going directly to a firearm," he said.

Kennedy''s hesitation is the appearance of the new Taser. It looks like a gun, he said, and that could invite deadly force. His older model looks more like a flashlight.

Dee Weiland, 70, of Peoria, is afraid Tasers will be used by criminals.

"No one''s explained to me what it means when it gets into the hands of the bad guys," said Weiland, a former secretary for the Phoenix Police Department. She believes criminals will use them to disable victims without fear of a firearms charge.

But Jennifer Noss, 25, of Clarkdale, said she would readily carry the device if she lived in a larger city like Phoenix.

Curious about what it''s like to be shocked by a Taser, Noss volunteered to be zapped by the Cottonwood Police Department. Kneeling with officers holding her arms, she submitted to a Taser shot.

"It hurt like you would not believe," she said. Her body locked up and she felt tingling all over. She was unable to move. "I could see how it would disarm somebody." As soon as the shock was cut off, however, she felt no pain and instantly recovered, she said.

Phoenix police, which issues Tasers to its officers, is taking no stand on the citizens model, Sgt. Randy Force said. But he said using it in a legitimate case of self-defense would not bring charges.

"If you''re justified in defending yourself, you''re justified in using a Taser," he said.

Other Arizona law-enforcement officers are taking a look at the issue, said Chuck Foy, president of the Peoria Police Officers Association. "Union members need to take a look at these weapons," Foy said. "We''re still reviewing the issue and we really haven''t made a determination whether it''s a good or bad thing."

Brian Livingston, executive director of the Arizona Police Association, said Tasers might be preferable to firearms.

"Police do not wish for citizens to use deadly force of any kind. A Taser offers them the opportunity to use a less lethal form of protection," Livingston said. "Citizens have to recognize that if a Taser is pointed at or used on a police officer, he or she will respond with deadly force."

To prevent misuse, Taser International runs a background check on all purchasers to verify age, identification and credit card information. The company also checks for felony convictions and inclusion on terrorist watch lists. If these show up, the buyer will be turned away.

That doesn''t comfort everyone.

"It does concern me that it''s going to be out there," said Aaron Kupchik, assistant professor of justice and social inquiry at Arizona State University.

"More weapons mean more people will be hurt."

If sales are brisk, Kupchik said, "It means people feel increasingly insecure - when crime rates have been falling." Sales figures won''t be known until after the first of the year, but the company reports heavy traffic on its Web site.

What disturbs Peter French, director of ASU''s Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics, is the notion that people will be frightened into buying Tasers.

"We have a society in which (we believe) everyone is a potential attacker so we better have as much defense as possible . . . Fear has become the best way to sell anything."

Sun City resident Betty Davies said her fear is of a home invasion. With the Taser ad campaign coming during the holiday season, she''s thinking about getting one for her husband, Pete, for Christmas.

"I think he''d enjoy having one," Davies, 71, said. "I like idea of having a Taser . . . I don''t want to kill anyone. I just want to discourage them from attacking me."

William Babin, a Mesa self-defense instructor, doesn''t like Tasers, or any weapon.

"You have to explore all the moral, ethical and legal issues of dealing with an assailant," said Babin, who runs the ATA Black Belt Academy. "It''s my opinion that there are very few human beings on the planet that will explore it that way."

Babin said the brief instructional period will give owners a false sense of security. Just knowing how to point and fire the device is insufficient, he said. "My general impression for all weapons is that they''re for professionals only."

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