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Reassess use of Tasers

James Dechant | Monday, November 26, 2007

The old adage that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is often touted by NRA gun rights fanatics who can recite the Second Amendment by heart and proudly sport “Charlton Heston is my president” bumper stickers. It’s a way of defending the presence of guns and pointing elsewhere for the cause of violent crimes, and it’s sadly true at some level about the human pathology of violence.

Unfortunately, we no longer have only guns to fear. These days, we have to worry about being killed by a weapon designed, ironically, to help police stop criminals without resorting to lethal force: The Taser.

The United Nations’ Committee Against Torture declared on Nov. 23 that Tasers – the electronic “stun gun” weapons used by nearly half of all United States police departments – are a form of torture. They cite the multitude of questionable deaths related to Taser use and say that the weapons violate the U.N. Convention Against Torture.

The U.N. aimed its statement particularly at Portuguese police forces that recently purchased new Taser X26 models, but the pronouncement strikes a chord here in the U.S., where recent Taser-related deaths have sparked an outcry against the use of the weapon. The last week and a half has seen four such deaths in this country: two in Florida, one in Maryland, and one in New Mexico. Canada saw two fatalities last week involving the weapon, and last month in British Columbia, a Polish man’s death following two shots with the taser was caught on video at the Vancouver Airport.

Taser International, the manufacturer of the item, refuses to even call the stun gun a weapon. They advertise it as a “personal protection system,” but make no mistake: The company is a weapons manufacturer. They claim no deaths have ever been proven conclusively to be a direct result of the “low energy electrical discharge” of the weapon. The low energy in question is 50,000 volts.

One of the biggest groups speaking out against the (mis)use of the weapon is Amnesty International. Amnesty has been calling for a suspension of the weapon since at least March of 2006, when they issued a statement against police use of the Taser. Their report cites several areas of concern, including the rise of Taser-related deaths (over 150 then, now over 250), the severe limitations of independent Taser research (that is, research not affiliated with the producer of the weapon and not benefiting from its sale), and the use of the weapon on vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women, drug users, mentally impaired victims, criminals in jail or prisoners in U.S. foreign detainment camps (already in trouble for torturing prisoners).

If you think these claims are exaggerated, read the Amnesty report online. It documents gross misuses of the Taser in just one state (Florida), including the use of the weapon on a 12-year-old boy, a 14-year-old girl and a 15-year-old autistic boy.

Clearly, the weapon has a documented history of violent effects. The U.N. accusation of torture shows how far afield the weapon has come from its original intention of incapacitating without violence.

Proponents of the Taser claim that in any event, the weapon’s use is preferable to guns and their unavoidably lethal consequences. But as the Amnesty report points out, the Taser’s classification as a non-lethal weapon and its underestimation as “low force” only authorizes its frequent, indiscriminate employment. Police departments, instead of using the Taser as an alternative to the gun, brandish it like a nightstick. Some departments place the weapon low enough on their use-of-force scales to justify its use where the only provocation is failure to comply with an officer’s requests.

The recent and now infamous “Don’t Tase me, bro” incident (again in Florida) sickeningly shows how security forces use the weapon without hesitation as a first option instead of a last, regardless of the student’s intentions.

There are no easy solutions here: Some situations require force, but the most humane tool we can create ends up killing people as a gun would do anyway.

Tasers should be safer and not kill – yet they do, and misconceptions about their “safety” prompts their use all the time. Giving police high-powered Nerf guns might seem appealing, but I suspect more real criminals (not autistic children from Florida) would escape that way.

Hopefully the U.N. statement will prompt a reevaluation of the weapon’s use by domestic security forces. The United Nations has only made one error in its illustrious history: Its inexcusable failure to create a Committee for the Veneration and Admiration of John Bolton’s Mustache. Its assessment of the weapon as a device of torture avoids any similar errors, and all kidding aside, the time has come for the weapon to come under serious inspection.

The increasing sentiment of negative public opinion, the growing collective of human rights groups speaking out against the weapon and, most of all, the mounting number of Taser-related deaths all point to the need for a suspension of the weapon until further study takes place.

James Dechant is a senior English and Theology major. Questions, comments and rude remarks can be directed to him at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.