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US study says Taser cattleprod guns are safe

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American medical researchers have concluded that Tasers, the controversial cattleprod-launching stun weapons, are broadly safe to use.

The study, funded by the US Justice Department, analysed almost 1,000 cases where American plods meted out electric enforcement, and found that 99.7 per cent of the sufferers were unharmed or suffered no more than scrapes or bruises. Three subjects required hospital treatment: two for head injuries sustained after falling down, and one for a rare muscle condition called rhabdomyolysis. The researchers could not say whether the rhabdomyolysis onset was related to the earlier electric shock.

According to Dr William Bozeman, who led the research: "This is the largest independent study to date, and the first to detail the medical effects of Tasers under real-world conditions.

"This study promises to give us the best information yet on the medical risks of these weapons."

Previous data related only to healthy police volunteers or animals, rather than people shocked in operational situations.

Tasers somewhat resemble normal bullet-firing pistols. However, they work by launching two sharp contacts at the target. When the barbs make contact with skin, a 50,000 volt electric shock is delivered from a battery in the gun butt down thin wires which trail from the flying barbs. A taser can be fired only once per reload, though a target once hit can be shocked repeatedly as long as the barbs remain in contact. Range is very limited, even compared to normal handguns; hits cannot be reliably made with a Taser from more than a few metres, and the wires are only 10.6m long.

Advocates of Tasers point out that police trying to subdue a violently-resisting suspect have a limited range of options. If the person is unarmed and outnumbered by the cops, they can try to deal with him (nearly always him) barehanded. This is dangerous for both police and suspect, and can be expected to lead to serious injuries in a lot of cases. It's especially dangerous for modern British coppers now that recruiting by size* and sex has been abolished.

Alternative tactics for the cops include the use of clubs, truncheons etc (more injuries for the suspect, less for the cops). They may also use Mace, pepper spray or whatever - though this may lead to medical complications and accusations just as a Taser does, and effective range is even worse.

Where the offender has a knife, club, bottle or other potential hurty implement, it could seem highly unfair to insist that coppers must still wade in with nothing more than a truncheon or a tin of liquid condiment. However, in the past the only other option they had was firearms, and shooting someone for waving a knife or an iron bar is often seen as excessive in retrospect. Police image is usually further damaged by witless Hollywood-inspired notions that people can realistically be shot in the leg, arm etc. to be subdued. (They can't, except perhaps by snipers when standing still and unaware of being targeted, which would normally be highly illegal. Anyway, being shot in a limb is still quite likely to kill or cripple.)

Hence the Taser, which seems to offer the plods a much better chance of cuffing a violent troublemaker without inflicting any more than temporary pain and maybe a few bruises.

In the UK, Tasers were initially issued only to specialist police firearms officers, who are usually described as "highly trained". (This despite the fact that they have been known to use Tasers against suspects thought to be carrying electrically-initiated bombs.)

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