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Scientists: Tasers work, but we don't know how

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Despite the Taser being one of the most heavily researched less-lethal weapons in the world, its operational mechanism remains a mystery, a conference on non-lethal weapons was told.

Explanations for the electro stun weapon's apparent ability to stiffen the whole of the human body without (usually) causing any physiological damage remain unclear, inconsistent and contradictory, and it might be that psychological factors play a more important role in its effect than previously thought.

These were the conclusions of researchers at the Bundeswehr Medical Centre, who presented their research at the 5th Symposium on Non Lethal Weapons in Ettlingen, Germany earlier this month.

In a special forum on Tasers, scientists from the University of Military Forces in Germany reported that published research into the Taser’s effect on heart tissue was also inconsistent. The differences between the studies were tentatively attributed to different assumptions contained within the various software programmes used to measure Tasers' impact.

Dr Jeffrey Ho, a consultant for Taser who works at the department of emergency medicine, Hennepin County medical centre and the Meeker County Sheriff's Office, said that he had conducted experiments on human volunteers and could not find any interference with the cardiac activity of those exposed.

Earlier independent research had come to opposite conclusions, but Dr Ho pointed out that this had been conducted on swine, which are anatomically very different to humans.

Neil Corney of the OMEGA Research Foundation, a Manchester-based peace group, expressed concern that these discussions were only taking place after the Taser’s widespread deployment. He pointed out that the constraints imposed on earlier research with humans by biomedical research ethics meant that the public were in practice being used as guinea pigs.

The Home Office Scientific Development Branch, which will publish its latest research on police Taser use in June, revealed that no significant change in the number of people killed by the police has taken place as a result of the availability of this less lethal option. This was because the number of such casualties was in any case very small; however, there had been a marked decrease in the number of injuries inflicted on police officers by civilians since its introduction.

In the Symposium’s keynote speech, former US army colonel and long time advocate of non-lethal weapons, John Alexander issued a dire warning against the ‘flawed logic’ of opponents to less lethal weapons.

He said that if we were to focus on the repressive capabilities of technology, then recent revelations about Guantanamo interrogations would require a prohibition on water exports. Alexander's view is that people, not technology, are to blame when things go wrong. ®

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