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Stop or I’ll zap!

tech reviews Updated: Aug 03, 2009 11:34 IST
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The man’s rushing at them. Stop, says a cop. He doesn’t. The cop whips out a strange-looking gun. A crackle of electricity, and in a second, like the Camerlengo in Angels and Demons, the attacker bursts into flames.

Star Trek? Set phasers to stun? Not quite. The cop fired a Taser, not a Phaser, and it wasn’t set to stun. And this was Australia in late July, not space, the final frontier, stardate 2256. The man – Ronald Mitchell, 36, from a remote Aboriginal community – is in an earth hospital with third-degree burns. The cops say he had been sniffing petrol, and had doused himself in the stuff (else he wouldn’t have gone up in flames). You’ll find BBC’s report at tinyurl.com/taser-stun.

A Taser is a handheld “non-lethal” weapon. It fires two barbs that penetrate clothes and even skin, stay connected to the gun, and discharge 50,000 volts into the target. It’s an electro-shock weapon – using electricity to disrupt voluntary control of muscles. Taser International, which makes it, calls this “neuromuscular incapacitation” using “electro-muscular disruption” (EMD) technology. If you’re hit by a Taser, you’ll have violent muscle contractions because your sensory nerves and motor nerves are disrupted. Amnesty International has called Tasers lethal, citing reports of a half-dozen Taser deaths in Canada alone, where they’re favourites of the Mounties.

The Taser isn’t new. It was developed in 1969, shortly after the moonlanding, by a NASA researcher, and named after the creator’s favorite fictional hero (it’s an acronym for Tom Swift’s Electric Rifle, with an A inserted to rhyme with laser). It’s been used for over three decades by US and other law enforcement agencies. The LAPD tried using one on Rodney King in 1991, but the battery failed, so they simply beat the heck out of him.

Set Taser to stun!
You can buy a Taser on Amazon.com (with an ID, and only within US borders) and elsewhere. These are personal weapons you can fit into your handbag, like a pepper-spray can. They don’t fire darts, and so are proximity or ‘close combat’ weapons – good for self defence. Of course, they could be equally used for offence – or, as Amnesty insists, for torture by police forces. And depending on the target’s condition, a 50,000 volt shock (even at tiny currents) could sometimes be lethal. You can get Tasers and the like disguised as lipstick tubes, phones and more.

Australians seem to love stun guns. On July 21, Melbourne cops picked up a 16-year-old with a stun gun disguised as a mobile phone (see tinyurl.com/phonegun). The phone looks real, but its twin aerials deliver a high-voltage electric shock. The boy got it from his American girlfriend. Devices like this are freely available at under $90, and it’s rumoured that Indians in Australia are busy shopping for them!

How do stun guns stun? It’s not quite the same as plugging your finger into a power socket, where you get a lower voltage (220V) high-current shock. When it’s a 50,000 volt shock at tiny currents, the ‘shock’ disrupts some of your nervous system, generating noise that your body interprets as pain or discomfort because it interrupts the electrical signals that communicate messages back and forth from the brain to the rest of the body. The stun gun confuses this system, disabling an attacker for minutes.

The high voltage lets the charge jump across clothes and skin. The tiny current is usually not strong enough to cause damage or burns. But used against someone with, for instance, a weak heart – let alone a pacemaker – the effect can be deadly.

You can’t buy stun guns here in India, at least not officially, though I wouldn’t be surprised if they were available in the ‘underground’ markets. So for local shoppers, your best bet is still pepper-spray cans, a few hundred rupees at local stores (for some reason I see them a lot in the convenience stores in gas stations).

But for those who travel or have friends who do, this could well be high on the ‘import’ shopping list. Stun guns make a good last-resort line of personal defence. But like other weapons, they need to be handled with great care. You wouldn’t want the wrong people to be going up in flames...

The author is chief editor at CyberMedia, publisher of 15 specialty titles such as Dataquest. pkr@cybermedia.co.in , twitter.com/prasanto

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