Tasers

Should we let civilians have Tasers? (Stock image / December 4, 2012)

It's legal in Connecticut to carry a killer handgun powerful enough, in the immortal words of Dirty Harry, "to blow yer head clean off." What you can't have on your person or in your car as a private citizen in this state is a (theoretically) non-lethal weapon like a Taser.

Electronic stun guns are classified as "dangerous weapons" under Connecticut law. The law bans anyone from carrying them around, in the same way you can't have a switch blade, brass knuckles or a blackjack in your pocket. The only folks who can legally carry and use them are the cops.

"It doesn't make sense," insists Scott Wilson, president of the Connecticut Citizens Defense League, a non-profit group dedicated to "protecting the unalienable right of all citizens to keep and bear arms." He argues that anyone who is worried about self defense but uncomfortable about carrying a gun should have the option of a less dangerous weapon like a Taser.

A proposal to do just that passed a General Assembly committee back in 2011 but died before reaching a vote in the state House or Senate. Now, the issue looks like it's going to be reloaded for the upcoming 2013 legislative session, which kicks off next month.

"I just think it should be looked at," says state Rep. Joseph Serra, a Middletown Democrat. Serra got interested in the issue because of questions from one of his constituents and asked the legislature's research office to look into the matter.

One interesting item cited in the resulting report is that there may be constitutional problems with a total ban on citizen ownership of stun guns.

The U.S. Supreme Court has never ruled on whether the 2nd Amendment's protection for a person's right to bear arms covers electronic defense weapons. But Michigan's Court of Appeals has.

In a decision handed down in June of this year, the Michigan court found that a total ban on stun guns would violate both Michigan's state constitution and the U.S. Constitution. The Michigan decision rejected state officials' claims that stun guns were too dangerous, logically pointing out that they certainly weren't as lethal as firearms.

Of course, a decision by a state court outside Connecticut doesn't mean squat here. But it does raise the possibility of a similar challenge here.

"I don't think it is unconstitutional [to prohibit carrying a stun gun]," says Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel Malloy's top criminal justice adviser. "Our law's been on the books forever."

The General Assembly added stun guns to the list of "dangerous weapons" back in 1986 and banned anyone from carrying them in 1999. Lawlor, a former co-chairman of the legislature's Judiciary Committee, says that was originally done at the request of Connecticut's law enforcement community.

All that happened before the development of sophisticated 50,000-watt electronic weapons like the Taser, which is now being used by virtually every police department in Connecticut.

Taser International Inc., which makes the most popular and widely used stun gun in the U.S., says more than 375,000 of its electronic weapons have been sold to law enforcement agencies since 1998. Nationally, according to the manufacturer, more than 181,000 of its stun guns have been bought by private individuals in the past 18 years.

Cops all across the country are now using their stun guns with almost frightening regularity and there are growing fears that these electronic weapons may not be as "nonlethal" as many claim.

At least 11 people have died in Connecticut since 2005 following police Taser incidents. In none of those cases has the cause of death been listed as being caused by cops' use of their stun guns. Police critics argue there is convincing evidence that stun guns can kill when used improperly, and that cops are far too frequently using Tasers when they shouldn't – claims rejected by most law enforcement experts and the manufacturer of Tasers.

Lawlor shrugs off claims that Tasers or other electronic weapons might be safer than guns in the hands of private citizens. "It depends on what you mean by safer," he says.

"As we've come to find out, [electronic weapons] can be very dangerous," according to Lawlor, referring to the deaths linked to Taser incidents involving "highly trained police."

"It seems not to be a great idea for people to carry around Tasers," he insists.

One major problem, according to Lawlor, is that there is a lot of very specific law about when a firearm can legally be used in self defense, but none at all concerning when you could use a stun gun.

In order to legally use a firearm in defense, a person must feel his or her life "is in imminent danger," says Lawlor. And even then, if at all possible, that person must attempt to retreat before using deadly force against someone else.