August 5, 2008
Are stun guns that immobilize but do not kill really non-lethal? Canadians have been wondering since a Polish immigrant died last October at Vancouver airport after police subdued him with a Taser, the most popular brand of the electronic weapon. An amateur video of the incident posted on YouTube sparked a public debate, and several official inquiries.
On July 22nd a 17-year old youth in Winnipeg became the 21st person to die in Canada after being fired at with a Taser:
- The gun's American manufacturer, Taser International, has sold 300,000 of them to police forces in 45 countries.
- It contends that just because someone dies after receiving a jolt, it does not necessarily follow that the Taser was to blame.
- It says -- and some doctors agree -- that pre-existing heart conditions, drug and alcohol abuse, and the agitation of having been pursued are all more likely causes of deaths in police custody.
- Tom Smith, Taser's chairman, told a committee of Canada's Parliament earlier this year that although 50,000 volts sounds like a lot, a static charge from a doorknob is almost as high.
Such arguments have proved persuasive with juries:
- Taser International has won or had dismissed 71 lawsuits for wrongful death or injury.
- Most of these cases were in the United States, where just over 300 deaths following Taser use have been recorded.
- The company suffered a rare courtroom loss earlier this year when a Californian jury ordered it to pay $6.2m to the parents of a man who died after being shocked (it is appealing).
- A company spokesman points out that no medical examiner in Canada has pointed to the Taser as a contributing factor in any deaths.
Source: "Zapped: Do electronic stun guns take more lives than they save?" Economist, July 31, 2008.
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