Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Non-Lethal Weapons, Part II: Taser, Anyone?

The taser is a device used mainly by law enforcement authorities up to now. It delivers a painful but allegedly non-lethal electrical charge that effectively disables an aggressor without permanent injury in the vast majority of cases. Invented in 1993, hundreds of thousands of tasers have been sold and used by police worldwide, and now Taser International is trying to enter the consumer market in a big way. In April, you will be able to buy a $300 unit called the C2, styled in a pink-and-black housing that makes it look more like a lady's shaver than a weapon.

An Austin American-Statesman report of Feb. 4, 2007 on the introduction of this latest taser model raises the question of safety. Is carrying around a high-voltage generator in your handbag really any better than packing a rod, as the saying goes? Even if the user doesn't harm himself or herself, are these devices really safe in both a technical and societal sense, or are they a step down the road to a police state where torture is routinely carried out by ordinary citizens?

Amnesty International seems to think tasers are a bad idea all around, and wants a moratorium on their sale. Not surprisingly, Taser's co-founder and CEO, Tom Smith, thinks a moratorium is a bad idea, since his company seems to be the main if not sole supplier of non-lethal electrical-shock devices for use on humans. What facts should guide one's decisions about these things?

Medically speaking, the taser people seem to be standing on pretty firm ground. Without going into a lot of details about amps, volts, watts, joules (not jewels, although it's pronounced the same way) and so on, I will simply say that the taser is carefully designed to deliver enough electrical energy to cause loss of voluntary control of the main skeletal muscles, but not enough to stop your heart or cause significant burns or other injuries typically associated with electrical shock. If you can't control your leg muscles, you fall down, which is the posture that police officers desire to see a recalcitrant subject in.

Taser International has posted a disquieting video showing the CEO and other high-ups receiving taser shocks. The grimaces of agony and cries of anguish are not faked, but all of them lived to tell about it. When I did a brief web search for taser injuries, one of the first articles that came up was about a series of lawsuits filed against Taser International, not by criminals (who don't usually have the wherewithal to sue anyway), but by police departments whose members claimed they sustained heart damage and other injuries while demonstrating the taser during training sessions. That was a couple of years ago, and the company now has four-page warning statements on their website describing all the things to watch out for, from sprained ankles to heart attacks in people with pre-existing heart conditions.

For the sake of argument, say the taser is as safe as its maker claims, and the people who get tasered suffer no permanent harm in nearly all cases. Do we still want Joe and Jane Public walking around with a C2 model, even if it is equipped with identification confetti that sprays out so that any use of a taser by the wrong person can be traced?

I once knew a guy who was a truck driver by profession, plenty big enough to take care of himself in a barroom brawl. For a long time he carried a gun, but after a while he married a young Christian woman and decided to quit carrying it. I asked him why. He said he didn't like the way just having the gun on him changed his attitude toward people and situations. He didn't go into detail, but what he may have meant is that he had those first thoughts that must always come before someone actually uses a weapon: what if this happens? should I pull it out then? does this guy deserve to be shot? And I guess he just got tired of having those kinds of thoughts.

If tasers get wildly popular, you can count on more people misusing them, because despite all the training brochures and videos in the world, if a consumer buys a thing and throws the training material away, there's nothing to stop him. Fortunately, the consequences of misusing tasers are less severe than the misuse of handguns. Wouldn't it be nice if we could replace all handguns with tasers? Unfortunately, we'd get right back into the arms race the minute somebody went out and got a handgun. So I think any hopes of getting criminals to use tasers instead of guns are fruitless, especially since they have the anti-crime confetti feature.

From a historical point of view, tasers are an interesting step backward in the grand arms race that has been going on since the first caveman hit another caveman with a rock—or since Cain murdered Abel, if you please. It is an effort to find a kinder, gentler way to subdue your fellow man (or woman). I find it rather charming that the acronym "taser" is supposed to stand for "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle." Tom Swift was the inventor hero of the eponymous series of adventure stories for boys that were popular in the early 1900s. In Tom Swift and his Electric Rifle (1911), Tom never actually deploys his weapon, which shoots ball-lightning-like glowing bombs, at another person. He hies himself off to Africa in an airship and shoots elephants instead. Inventor Tom Smith must have had some familiarity with the series, which has attracted a kind of cult following among engineers and inventors over the years.

Tom Swift's world was a very black-and-white place, both in the racial sense and in the moral sense. In Tom Swift's world, the only people with tasers would be the good guys, who could always subdue the bad guys, save the girl, and return home in triumph to a hero's welcome. Let's hope that everybody who uses one lives up to that ideal—but let's also plan on what to do if they don't.

(Correction added 2/18/2007: A more careful re-reading of Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle reveals that Tom did indeed use his weapon against people, namely a tribe of entirely fictional three-foot-high natives covered with red hair. At first, he "regulated the charge" (p. 166) so as to stun, not kill, just like the modern taser, but toward the end of the book desperation overcame moderation and he blasted away at full power, bowling over hordes of the "red imps.")

Sources: The article "New Tasers Alarm Safety Advocates" by Joshunda Sanders appeared in the Austin American-Statesman print edition of Feb. 4, 2007, on the front page. Taser International's website is at www.taser.com. The article describing the lawsuits against Taser International appeared in August 2005 in the Arizona Republic and is found at http://www.azcentral.com/arizonarepublic/local/articles/0820taser20.html. Medical information about typical taser injuries can be found in an article by Sir (first name, maybe?) Scott Savage at http://www.ncchc.org/pubs/CC/tasers.html. And Wikipedia has a nice, though apparently controversial, article on the Tom Swift series.


  1. I thought your readers would be interested in looking at these energy technologies and EPS's theoretic base for ball lighting.
    and a kinetic weapon with 2000mile/sec velosity.

    Aneutronic Fusion: Here I am not talking about the big science ITER project taking thirty years, but the several small alternative plasma fusion efforts.

    There are three companies pursuing hydrogen-boron plasma toroid fusion, Paul Koloc, Prometheus II, Eric Lerner, Focus Fusion and Clint Seward of Electron Power Systems

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion

    He quotes costs and time to development of P-B11 Fusion as tens of million $, and years verses the many decades and ten Billion plus $ projected for ITER and other "Big" science efforts

    Here are the links:


    A resent DOD review of EPS technology reads as follows:

    "MIT considers these plasmas a revolutionary breakthrough, with Delphi's
    chief scientist and senior manager for advanced technology both agreeing
    that EST/SPT physics are repeatable and theoretically explainable. MIT and
    EPS have jointly authored numerous professional papers describing their
    work. (Delphi is a $33B company, the spun off Delco Division of General
    "Cost: no cost data available. The complexity of reliable mini-toroid
    formation and acceleration with compact, relatively low-cost equipment
    remains to be determined. Yet the fact that the EPS/MIT STTR work this
    technology has attracted interest from Delphi is very significant, as the
    automotive electronics industry is considered to be extremely demanding of
    functionality per dollar and pound (e.g., mil-spec performance at
    Wal-Mart-class 'commodity' prices)."

    EPS, Electron Power Systems seems the strongest and most advanced, and I love the scalability, They propose applications as varied as home power generation@ .ooo5 cents/KWhr, cars, distributed power, airplanes, space propulsion , power storage and kinetic weapons.

    It also provides a theoretic base for ball lighting : Ball Lightning Explained as a Stable Plasma Toroid http://www.electronpowersystems.com/Images/Ball%20Lightning%20Explained.pdf
    The theoretics are all there in peer reviewed papers. It does sound to good to be true however with names like MIT, Delphi, STTR grants, NIST grants , etc., popping up all over, I have to keep investigating.

    Recent support has also come from one of the top lightning researcher in the world, Joe Dwyer at FIT, when he got his Y-ray and X-ray research published in the May issue of Scientific American,
    Dwyer's paper:

    and according to Clint Seward it supports his lightning models and fusion work at Electron Power Systems

    lightning produces thermonuclear reaction
    This new work By Dr.Kuzhevsky on neutrons in lightning: Russian Science News http://www.informnauka.ru/eng/2005/2005-09-13-5_65_e.htm is also supportive of Electron Power Systems fusion efforts .

    Vincent Page (a technology officer at GE!!) gave a presentation at the 05 6th symposium on current trends in international fusion research , which high lights the need to fully fund three different approaches to P-B11 fusion (Below Is an excerpt).

    "for larger plant sizes
    Time to small-scale Cost to achieve net if the small-scale
    Concept Description net energy production energy concept works:
    Koloc Spherical Plasma: 10 years(time frame), $25 million (cost), 80%(chance of success)
    Field Reversed Configuration: 8 years $75 million 60%
    (Eric Lerner)Plasma Focus: 6 years $18 million 80%"

    Looks like Eric Lerner is moving down the road!!

    U.S., Chilean Labs to Collaborate on Testing Scientific Feasibility of Focus Fusion http://pesn.com/2006/03/18/9600250_LPP_Chilean_Nuclear_Commission/
    The learning curve is so steep now, and with the resources of the online community, I'm sure we can rally greater support to solve this paramount problem of our time.

  2. I have no "big ideas" on this topic, merely a couple of detail-level observations on your post:

    "are these devices really safe . . . or are they a step down the road to a police state where torture is routinely carried out by ordinary citizens?"

    Actually, in a police state isn't the torture carried out by the government or its designated agents? I'm not sure WHAT you call a society in which torture is routinely carried out by ordinary citizens, but I'm pretty sure I don't want to live in it. Tasing the parking attendent because he scratched your car? Tasing your teenaged kids until they tell you who helped buy them that beer they aren't old enough to drink? Not a happy prospect.

    "I once knew a guy who . . . said he didn't like the way just having [a] gun on him changed his attitude toward people and situations."

    I don't disagree with your interpretation of WHAT he didn't like, and how it changed him. After all, you knew him and I didn't. So maybe we WAS constantly in combat mode, as you described. But another possibility is that it made him reckless, heedless. "I can do anything I want; if I get in trouble I've got the pistol." In my experience as a small guy who can't fight, big guys who can fight tend to figure they can do anything they want even when they AREN'T armed. So, as you said, it may have been "I'll stop packing heat so I won't always be looking at every situation trying to figure out whether and how to USE the heat." But it might have been "I'll stop packing heat so I'll stop not caring whether I start a fight, since when I'm armed I assume I'd win."