Can stun guns and tasers cause death?

Danger: high voltage

Also in this week's column:

Can stun guns and tasers cause death?

Asked by Ian Leonard of London

The chance of dying after being shot by a taser or stun gun is about one in 870. Dr William P Bozeman, professor of emergency medicine at the Wake Forest University School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, estimates this in the September 2005 issue of the Annals of Emergency Medicine.

But Dr Bozeman acknowledges that any such estimate is based on very little data. Tasers and stun guns have been in use for only a short period of time and there are still few studies assessing their various effects.

Nevertheless, medical studies suggest that more not fewer deaths could result from the introduction of tasers and stun guns for police work. Some doctors worry that more deaths could occur since police may be more likely to use tasers and stun guns on a suspect thinking they are safer than handguns.

Researchers first made this point in 2001. Tasers and stun guns were first introduced in police work in South Africa in 1999. In the 1 September 2001 issue of The Lancet, bioengineers Dr Raymond Fish of the University of Illinois and Dr Leslie Geddes of Purdue University, argued that tasers and stun guns may not be as safe as many of us are led to believe.

Instead, tasers and stun guns are known to cause a suspect to suffer cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, malfunction of pace-makers, damaged eyes, injury to the central nervous system, and death. The death of an innocent foetus can occur as well as tasers and stun guns can cause a miscarriage when used on a pregnant woman. Police would find it difficult, if not impossible to know if a female suspect is pregnant.

According to Drs Fish and Gedess, death of a suspect can result, in particular, if they have taken certain drugs - something that is often the case when arrests take place. They stress that tasers and stun guns should not be used in all ways police sometimes use them now - but would not use handguns in those same circumstances. These circumstances would include, for example, in the breathalysing of a suspected traffic offender, the controlling of an unruly fan at a sports match, or the restraining of a possible drunk and disorderly suspect. Recent findings of other research includes:

  • Of 75 people who died after being shot with a taser or stun gun, the taser was considered a potentially contributory cause of death in 27 per cent of cases. Source: Drs J Strote and H Range Hutson from the University of Washington Medical Centre in Seattle and reported in the October/December 2006 issue of Prehospital Emergency Care.
  • The use of cocaine boosts the shock value of a taser or stun gun by 50 to 100 per cent. Source: Ten researchers led by Dr D Lakkireddy from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation in Cleveland, Ohio, and reported in the August 2006 issue of the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
  • Use of tasers and stun guns results in fewer injuries to police compared with using clubs, dogs, or handguns to restrain suspects. Source: Drs E Jenkinson, C Neeson, and A Bleetman from the Heart of England NHS Foundation Trust in Solihull, United Kingdom and reported in the July 2006 Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine.

What happens to you when you are shot by a taser or stun gun?

Tasers and stun guns are high-voltage, low-current stimulators that can cause involuntary muscle contractions, loss of body control, and sensations such as pain and extreme fatigue. They are used as police weapons as a person can be immobilised without the injury or death that would normally result from the use of a normal police revolver.

Both tasers and stun guns produce electrical stimuli in the form of shocks of about 50,000 volts that last for a fraction of a second. In a taser, an electrode is shot out as a dart and impacts upon the body. In a stun gun, the electrodes are fixed into the gun itself.

If taser darts are shot into a standing person's thigh at 10 inches apart and from a distance of six feet away, the leg will be locked into a flexed position and the person will be unable to continue to stand. If a stun gun is shot at a standing person's rib cage from a distance of six feet away for four to five seconds, the person will be considerably weakened and in most cases brought to their knees.

Stephen Juan, Ph.D. is an anthropologist at the University of Sydney. Email your Odd Body questions to s.juan@edfac.usyd.edu.au

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