Taser Maker Says Device Has Been Law Enforcement 'Game Changer'

PHOTO: Rick Smith, who founded Taser International with his brother Tom Smith, takes "Nightline" through a tour of the companys Scottsdale, Ariz., manufacturing facility.PlayABC News
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The founders of Taser International Inc. say they developed their version of the Taser as a safe form of protection, but since the wide release of their product, the Arizona-based company has become a magnet for dozens of lawsuits and controversy.

"There have been years where our litigation budget has been higher than our research," said founder Rick Smith. "You hear about the cases, but what you don't hear about is all the cases it avoids."

Just this week, a lawsuit that includes Taser International was filed in Albemarle County, Va., and claimed a deputy was responsible for a man's death after shooting him with a Taser during a traffic stop last year.

Roughly every three minutes, someone somewhere in the world gets Tased -- and that's just by law enforcement. It doesn't include the countless numbers of people who shock their friends for kicks and post the videos on YouTube, or even the comedic scenes from the likes of "The Hangover," "South Park" and "Nurse Jackie."

"The whole reason we started this company is we wanted to get people to stop killing each other," Smith said. "In order to do that, you know, you have to take some steps that are sometimes not pleasant."

Smith and his brother, Tom Smith, founded Taser International in the early '90s, after two friends were shot to death in a road rage incident and their mother started to worry about her own safety.

"She tried pepper spray, she tried stun guns, ended up buying a Doberman pinscher," Tom Smith said. "We kind of looked at that and said, 'We can put man on the moon, but the way people fundamentally defend themselves is the way we fought the Revolutionary War.'"

The brothers tracked down an ex-NASA scientist, Jack Cover, who invented the first TASER or the "Thomas A. Swift Electric Rifle," in the 1970s. Then, using parts from Ace Hardware, they modified it for a broader market.

The first time they tried to sell their device at a police convention, a tough-as-nails Marine named Hans Marrero volunteered to see what it could do.

"I shot him with an air Taser and he stood there and had a conversation with me," Rick Smith said. "He said, 'Sir, this is very painful, most people would be on the ground right now,' and the whole audience is laughing."

The duo worked out the bugs and invited Marrero back to try it a second time. That was when the laughing stopped.

"He stood up and he said, 'This is amazing. You know I have killed people in my career and it's because I had to, and this is a game changer,'" Rick Smith said.

The Taser uses compressed air to shoot out its electric panels, which send 50,000 volts of electricity down two wires and into the body through straightened fish hooks. With a good connection, the electricity painfully confuses the body's central nervous system until the trigger is released, causing those hit with it to lose all control of their motor functions.

When police departments started buying them, it only took about a decade for Taser International to grow from a garage-run operation into a multi-billion dollar company. The company now has retina scanners at its front door and an atrium inspired by "Star Wars" at its Scottsdale, Ariz., headquarters.

More than 500,000 cops around the world carry Tasers with them today, and almost 1.5 million people have been Tasered by officers. While Taser accounts for only 12 specific fatalities where the device been listed as contributory, more than 400 individuals have died after being Tased.

Rick Smith admitted that the company cannot guarantee that its product won't cause cardiac arrest.

"The best I can tell you is if you look at an air bag, right?" he said. "It is not a safe device in a car. It hits you with a lot of force. But getting hit with an airbag in the middle of a car crash can save your life. It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that these devices make dangerous situations safer."

He added that his company trains law enforcement to avoid what they call "Taser dependency," or so-called "Lazy Cop Syndrome."

"It's like our baby, and when it gets misused it does hit you in the gut," he said. "But that's why we now take the next step and say, 'Let's make sure it doesn't happen again. Let's record the next guy who does it.'"

Taser misuse inspired the brothers to come up with what may be another law enforcement game changer. It's called Axon -- an evidence-gathering camera worn on the side of an officer's head, putting them one step closer to putting real RoboCops on the streets.

"Initially, an officer might be skeptical: 'What, I'm gonna record every incident?'" Rick said. "But then once they try it a couple of times, they realize, 'Oh my gosh, you know, I get accused of all these awful things all the time.'"

Axon is another Taser International product. Credit: ABC News

Axon video has helped back up the story of officers who shot a suspect to death in Arkansas and, along with the Taser, the Smiths believe their inventions could save municipalities millions of dollars in wrongful death lawsuits and save countless lives. But as long as there are headline-grabbing mistakes, there will be critics.

"[Critics] say, 'Well we shouldn't use the Taser,' but they never go to the next step, which says: In that particular situation if not a Taser, then what?" Tom Smith said. "Law enforcement doesn't have the option of walking away and saying, 'You know what, that guy is too violent. I'm not going to deal with him.'"

"Getting hit with a Taser is not pleasant but an analogy I use sometimes is chemotherapy," Rick Smith said. "If you've got cancer, they do awful things to your body to try and save you. Well, our society has a cancer. We are a violent, dangerous society, and we have a device that, while it's not pleasant, it can make a huge difference and save tons and tons of lives."