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Sunday, October 7, 2007

An Electrifying Experience-!

The taser gun is once again the subject of controversy after a recent event brought its use by law enforcement into the spotlight. At a campus forum at the University of Florida in Gainesville, a student was attempting to question Sen. John Kerry when he was advised his allotted time was up and his microphone was cut off. At that point the student, Andrew Meyer, age 21, became upset. Officers became involved and began trying to remove him from the room, as cameras captured the fracas.

Meyer continued to protest, finally crying out the words that would become something of a catchphrase for the story: "Don't tase me, bro!" At that point, the officers did just that; Meyer was shot with a taser gun and fell to the ground. Even on camera, the situation turned out to be foggy. Was the use of force by the officers appropriate?

Certainly Meyer was being disruptive by not complying immediately with orders he was given. But was it necessary for the officers to use the taser gun, or could he have been successfully removed and restrained without it? The question has arisen again and again throughout the history of the taser gun.The guns are made by an Arizona-based company, Taser International. They are considered a "non-lethal" or "less-than-lethal" alternative to a real handgun. Somewhere in the neighborhood of a couple of hundred deaths have been attributed directly or indirectly to "stun guns" since their use was first adopted by law enforcement, but the true causes of death are mostly in contention.

The person who was tased may have been under the influence of drugs, bringing up the possibility that overdose was the cause of death. Some victims have also had heart or other health problems that cause of death could be attributed to. Several law enforcement officials and others have voluntarily submitted to tasing for demonstration and research purposes, but these individuals have been drug-free and in generally good health. It is thought by many that the blast from a taser could very well exacerbate a previously existing condition in an individual. The purpose of the taser is to quickly and briefly incapacitate someone so that the person can be restrained and controlled for purposes of arrest.

However, some instances of its use have appeared largely punitive towards the subject rather than as a means to an end. Other controversial instances have involved the elderly and children. In April 2006, a 56-year-old Florida woman who was wheelchair bound and known to suffer from schizophrenia was shocked 10 times by a taser and died. The cause of death as determined by the medical examiner was hypertensive heart disease with the taser shock found to be a contributing factor. Despite this and other similar stories of misuse, the taser is lauded as a lifesaver by many in law enforcement, since it does provide an alternative to guns. Other less-than-lethal uses of force are available to officers, including pepper spray, clubs, and hand-to-hand pressure point tactics.

Each of these has its own drawbacks; pepper spray in many instances has little effect on someone under the influence of mind-altering drugs. Other tactics require the officer getting into close contact with a violent subject. The taser, on the other hand, is almost universally disabling and can be fired from several feet away.

While groups such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union continue to voice protest against taser use, it is clear that law enforcement will continue to utilize the devices for the foreseeable future. Orders from police departments continue to increase. Are the benefits of the taser gun worth the risks? Will increased training and awareness of these risks by law enforcement cut down on the incidence of death and misuse? Time and experience will perhaps resolve many of the difficulties, allowing the benefits of the device to outweigh the risks in the eyes of the media and society in general.

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