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Taser sales to public worry officers

A civilian model of the stun gun, unveiled last fall, is very similar to the version used by law agencies.

By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER
Published March 5, 2005


TAMPA - Tasers, the powerful and controversial stun guns used by thousands of police agencies, are stirring debate yet again.

Manufacturer Taser International is touting a new compact, lightweight version - this one for sale to the public.

The new model's debut comes as Taser International faces questions about the safety of the weapons, even in the hands of trained police officers. And some of the very officers who support the use of Tasers by law enforcement are not so sure Joe Schmoe should carry one, too.

The civilian model unveiled last fall, which blasts targets with 50,000 volts of electricity instead of bullets, is remarkably similar to the version carried by agencies including the Tampa Police Department. But the civilian version shoots for up to 30 seconds straight, while the police model shoots only five seconds at a time.

Officers receive several hours of training before using the Taser. Civilians who buy them aren't required to get any instruction. And they don't need a concealed weapons permit.

"I think this could be easily abused," said Hillsborough Sheriff David Gee, whose deputies carry Tasers. "This is not my first choice for a self defense weapon."

Taser International promotes its X26C model - which costs $999 and fits easily into a purse - as ideal self-protection for regular people. At a recent firearms convention in Las Vegas, Taser International president Thomas Smith told the Chicago Tribune, "It's a huge potential market. I just can't get my arms around how big this can get."

Citing a number of people who died after being stunned by Tasers, groups like Amnesty International say more medical studies are needed. Recent cases in which police used Tasers on children have prompted a call for stricter use policies.

Even law enforcement agencies that embrace Tasers as useful tools for subduing suspects aren't so sure about the civilian version. They worry that even with safeguards in place to ensure the weapons aren't sold to felons or children, Tasers will inevitably end up in the wrong hands, just as guns do.

"Eventually, this will get into the hands of bad guys," said Tampa police Chief Steve Hogue.

Pinellas County Sheriff Jim Coats agrees.

"Sexual batteries, burglaries, bar fights, you name it," he said. "This could be used instead of a gun to commit all kinds of crimes."

* * *

A Taser looks and fires like a gun. But instead of bullets, it shoots two dart-like probes that deliver about 50,000 volts of electricity, enough to incapacitate a person long enough for police officers to take control. Unlike other stun guns, which have to be pressed to the skin to deliver a shock, the Taser's probes travel up to 25 feet.

Taser International started selling them in the late 1990s with a promise that the devices would knock down a resisting suspect without leaving lasting marks. Today, more than 135,000 law enforcement officers in about 6,000 agencies carry them, according to the company. Taser International's sales ballooned from $4.5-million in 2003 to $19.1-million last year.

Tampa police officers began carrying the Taser X26 model, almost identical to the new civilian Taser, last year. Deputies in Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas and police officers in Clearwater, Temple Terrace, Dade City and Port Richey also use Tasers.

With popularity has come controversy.

Since 1999, about 100 people in the United States have died after being hit by a Taser, including recent Florida deaths in Pensacola, Hollywood, Naples and Delray Beach.

Taser International officials maintain those people died because they had taken drugs or suffered from existing heart conditions when they were stunned.

Still, the International Association of Police Chiefs plans to call for a review of Taser-related deaths.

* * *

Now comes the civilian Taser.

The X26C isn't Taser International's first model made available to the public. But this version weighs only seven ounces, lighter than two earlier models.

The civilian model shoots the barbs up to 15 feet. The Taser used by police can be used at greater distances.

Steve Tuttle, Taser International's vice president of communications, said the longer, 30-second shock time in the civilian model gives someone time to "place the X26C on the ground and depart a dangerous scene while the X26C safely disables the intruder."

The civilian Taser can be carried without a permit in 43 states, including Florida.

Florida law requires that anyone carrying a concealed weapon or firearm - including an "electronic weapon or device" - must get a permit. But the statute defines the Taser not as an electronic device but a "remote stun gun." The remote stun gun is not listed as one of the weapons covered by the concealed weapons statute.

Regardless, most civilians can buy weapons or guns without a permit if they keep them in their home for self-protection. As long as they don't carry it with them in public, it is not a concealed weapon, according to officials with the Florida Legislature's information center.

Tuttle said anyone who buys a Taser must submit Social Security and driver's license numbers so the company can confirm the buyer is 18 or older and check the identity against felon and terrorist watch lists.

The civilian model also features identification tags containing the Taser's unique serial number. The confetti-like tags fly out whenever the Taser is deployed so law enforcement officers can trace the tags back to the buyer.

Calls to local gun shops found some retailers aren't as stringent about checking who buys the Taser. Salesman Ruben Brionez of Patriot Arms in Brandon told the Times a background check isn't needed because the Taser isn't a firearm.

Patriot Arms sells an earlier civilian Taser model for $520. Sales are so good, Brionez didn't have anything but demonstration models in stock this week.

* * *

Before Tampa officers began carrying Tasers last year, they went through eight hours of training, including practice target sessions and discussions on responsible use.

Civilians who buy the Taser X26C get a training DVD and a voucher for a one-hour training session with a law enforcement officer. But they don't have to watch the DVD or take part in the training.

Police Chief Hogue worries that, like paintball guns, children or teens will get Tasers and use them like toys. Also frightening, he said, is the prospect of an officer who goes to a call and finds himself Taser to Taser with a suspect.

"If someone had one of these, they could incapacitate an officer," he said. "And then you're more likely to have the situation escalate to where we're having to use deadly force."

Staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at 813 226-3373 or svansickler@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 5, 2005, 00:57:08]


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