Electronic Stun Devices 101: What They Can and Cannot Do

Because of the increasing popularity of Electronic Stun Devices that are being marketed by reputable and sometimes not-so-reputable manufacturers, I decided that it was time for a bit of a reality check.

Electronic Stun Devices (including the TASER) can be an important part of a layered personal defensive system. However, not all ESDs are created equal, and they all have been endowed with capabilities via Hollywood that are far beyond what they can do in real life.

The first time I ever saw a TASER device depicted by Hollywood was in the 1976 Dirty Harry movie The Enforcer. In the movie, the mayor of San Francisco is kidnapped by a group of terrorists and shot with an early (and very ineffective) model of the TASER while in his limousine. The mayor is rendered unconscious for a considerable period of time and has to be assisted out of the car by the terrorists several minutes later because he is still groggy. Nothing could be farther from the truth in terms of even modern TASER capabilities. No Electronic Stun Device incapacitates anyone for that length of time. But Hollywood is never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story.

Electronic Stun Devices can be broken down into two basic types: Contact Stun Devices (CSDs) and Conducted Energy Weapons (CEWs). CEWs are best exemplified by the TASER.

CSDs are the less expensive of the two types, with various models available advertising astronomical voltage levels (sometime 500,000 volts or more) in the $20 and higher price range. In a CSD, the voltage is delivered between two fixed probes at the end of the device. The sparking display is usually very impressive. There is a loud crackle as the current arcs between the probes and the smell of ozone is detectable in the air. The psychological impact of the arcing current on a would-be attacker can provide a deterrent effect. After all, no one wants to be electrically shocked, even if it’s just by static electricity generated by feet scuffing across a carpet. But a CSD’s capabilities are limited.

In the mid-1980s, a company named NOVA marketed its 50,000-volt CSD to law enforcement agencies, claiming that it could take down an aggressive opponent if held in the area of the suspect’s solar plexus and discharged for three to five seconds. Both the Licking County and Franklin County (Ohio) Sheriff’s Offices issued them to their deputies and jailers. I frequently talked with the deputies who had been issued them. I wanted to see how effective they were, thinking they might be good tools for our agency (Reynoldsburg P.D.) to adopt as well.

No one I had talked to ever told me that either he or she, or anyone he or she knew who was issued one, was able to incapacitate anyone with the NOVA Stun Gun. They were withdrawn from service after five or so years. What the application of the NOVA device mainly did was make resistive suspects angrier, and there were two good reasons why.

First, five seconds is a long time in a fight with a violent, resisting subject. They are normally thrashing and moving about so violently that the odds of making and keeping contact with a CSD for that amount of time are very slim.

Second, even under the best of circumstances, chances of true temporary incapacitation with a CSD are remote. The electricity travels a very short distance from probe to probe and only along the surface of the skin. The delivery of localized pain is normally the only thing that CSDs do.

But CSDs are not a total loss for use by civilians. When CSDs were issued to law enforcement, they were issued for the purpose of capturing resistive suspects—not driving them away. For civilians, the mission of the CSD is to drive attackers away, either through fear of being shocked or from the pain of a delivered shock. However unlike CSDs, CEWs can produce actual temporary incapacitation.

CEWs (like TASERs) deliver their electrical charge through fine wires attached to harpoon-like probes that spread apart at a rate of around 6 inches for every 3 feet traveled. The electrical current from a TASER (50,000 volts) can affect a much larger area of the body than the fixed probes of a CSD. The current is delivered below the skin, capable of affecting muscle tissue and causing temporary neuromuscular incapacitation in addition to pain. The temporary neuromuscular incapacitation (where you can’t think anything other than “make it stop” and can’t move) only lasts while the TASER is discharging. The law enforcement TASERs discharge for only five seconds, while the civilian TASERs discharge for 30 seconds, allowing plenty of time for the defender to get away from the attacker. I can personally attest that a five-second TASER “ride” seems like an eternity. I can’t imagine a 30 second one. Once the current stops, recovery time ranges from immediately to five-10 seconds—not several minutes.

One CEW downside is the fact that both probes must strike the attacker and complete the electrical circuit. However, should you miss, any TASER can be used as a contact stun device. There is a price to pay for this level of effectiveness compared to a CSD: $299 for the TASER C2, and $399.00 for the new TASER Pulse (www.taser.com).

Like any self-defense device (including firearms), there are limitations to Electronic Stun Devices, whether they are CSDs or CEWs. If you decide to obtain one, make sure that you don’t purchase the very cheapest model from a company you’ve never heard of. Also, be familiar with state and local laws governing their possession and use before purchase, as they are not legal in every state and locale.

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