Taser International is targeting a new market for its stun guns -- regular citizens and homeowners. But some are questioning whether the devices are safe enough for civilian use.
In several recent incidents, people have been seriously injured or even died after police shocked them with Tasers. Earlier this week, a 14-year-old boy suffered cardiac arrest and a 54-year-old man died after being hit with a Taser by police in Chicago.
Although home-use Tasers pack less of a punch than police-issue ones, some worry that widespread civilian use of Tasers could lead to more tragedies. Currently only a handful of states and cities restrict or ban the use of Tasers by civilians. But now Amnesty International is calling for a ban on civilian use.
"The manufacturers claim these are nonlethal weapons," William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International USA, said this week on ABC News' "Good Morning America."
Company Says Police Shootings Drop With Taser Use
The company says it has sold 135,000 Tasers to law officers in 7,000 agencies nationwide. Schulz said his group does not oppose police use of Tasers, but said the deaths and injuries that have occurred after police Taser use show the devices can be dangerous.
"Amnesty International documented more than 70 deaths associated with police use of Tasers, and the police are trained to use them," he said.
Tom Smith, the president of Taser International, says Amnesty's claims are taken out of context, and in most of those cases, Tasers have not been definitively proven as causing the deaths. He added that Tasers have proven extremely successful in law enforcement, resulting in a drop in police shootings in cities that use them.
Smith also said that the company has been selling Tasers to the public since 1994 and that there are currently about 100,000 of them in the hands of civilians, and in the vast majority of cases, they have not been misused.
The company is getting more requests from citizens looking to purchase a Taser for personal protection, said Smith. "They are much more recognized now and people want to use them," he said. "A lot of people are not comfortable with using a firearm."
'Like Being Shook Really Hard'
Tasers fire two wires tipped with electric barbs, delivering a shock that painfully and briefly paralyzes a person. The new consumer model, which costs $1,000, has a range of 15 feet and is designed to stun for 30 seconds. The civilian-use model delivers a 50,000-volt shock, according to Taser International.
The more powerful police counterpart fires 25 feet, with a stronger initial jolt of up to five seconds, extendable for as long as the officer wants.
Supporters say increased use of the stun gun will prevent deaths from real guns.
Milan Hart, a Minnesota gun shop owner who is in favor of selling Tasers to civilians, volunteered to be shot with a stun gun by local police to demonstrate their safety.
The experience wasn't pleasant, he told "Good Morning America."
"It is like being shook really hard," he said. "You feel a shocking sensation. You lose control of your extremities. There's no way you can move after that."
Nevertheless, Hart said he still "absolutely, positively" supports Taser use by civilians.
Schulz said there are many documented cases of police misusing Tasers, including shooting a 6-year-old child and a 75-year-old grandmother, but he does acknowledge that Taser use by police could cut gun deaths.
"Amnesty International does not oppose the use of Tasers for police absolutely," said Schulz.
Schulz said independent tests need to be conducted on how Taser shocks affect vulnerable populations, such as people with cardiac or neurological problems, and that police need to adopt standards to use Tasers only as a last resort with those populations.
Could Home Use Lead to Abuse?
Some argue that Taser use at home could lead to abuse, with husbands shocking wives, parents shocking kids as discipline, or people using them to control their pets. A 40-year-old Florida man faces felony child-abuse charges after he allegedly used a stun gun -- though not the Taser International brand -- to discipline his son.
Hart said that there is always the possibility of misuse, which he called regrettable, but part of a free society.
"If [people] are going to abuse their spouse or pet or child, they are going to abuse them, with or without the Taser," he said. "The Taser is meant to save lives."
Smith added that Taser International supports legislation to require background checks on all Taser purchases and to increase penalties for people who misuse them.
Schulz, however, said that there are few restrictions on the sale of Tasers and other stun guns, especially over the Internet.
"We already have enough abuse of our children, our elderly and spouses without handing ... anybody a weapon that can be utilized in this uncontrolled fashion," he said.