I haven’t run any scientific tests, but I can tell you this much about Taser International’s stun guns: I’d rather be shot with one than to take a slug from a .38.
Thousands of volunteers, including a couple of reporters from this newspaper, have allowed themselves to be shot with the stun gun to see what it is like.
No sane person — no one even approaching sane — would volunteer to be shot by a .38 just for the experience.
But Taser’s stun guns are weapons, they are even marketed using terms such as "nonlethal" or "less lethal."
"No weapon can be completely safe under all circumstances," Taser CEO Rick Smith said last week.
There’s the rub. Better than bullets but not free of any and all danger.
Somewhere on that broad continuum lies the truth about the Scottsdale-based company’s weapons.
Exactly where it lies will be hashed out in the coming months by scientists, journalists, public relations specialists, politicians, consumers, investors, cops, medical examiners and company officials. Resulting public perception will determine whether Taser stun guns remain a niche product for law enforcement or become as common as home alarms systems, whether the company remains one of Wall Street’s hottest stocks or whether it fades back into market oblivion.
Oh, and a few lives could hang in the balance. Taser believes its products can and already have saved lives by giving police another option short of deadly force when officers perceive a suspect is a threat to them or to others.
But over the past few months another side to the Taser story has emerged. National media outlets have raised questions about stun guns causing or contributing to deaths of suspects and detainees. The most recent report came last week from The New York Times, which in a lengthy article reported six Taser-associated deaths in June. The Tribune ran an shorter version (though still lengthy — with photos and headlines it took an entire page) in its Sunday editions.
Taser strongly denied the Times report and questioned the balance of the story. Taser says there is no conclusive proof that its weapon were the cause of any deaths.
The Times also raised questions of the thoroughness of scientific data about Taser weapons. All of it comes from research funded by Taser. Smith said somebody had to pay to research the weapons’ effects on small animals and people. "The government doesn’t have money sitting around for this,’’ he said.
The timing of the Times report wasn’t great from the company’s perspective. Taser’s second quarter earnings came out on Tuesday. Despite a strong quarter, the stock took a major hit.
In a conference call to announce its earnings, company officials detailed plans to step up marketing Tasers to consumers in the coming three months.
Taser has offered its products to consumers for eight years, but the company and investors are betting there’s a sizable, largely untapped market out there for Taser products. That’s why even though the stock took a pounding last week, it was still finished Friday trading at 73 times earnings, about three times the average P/E ratio in this market.
I asked Smith after all the tumult in the past week if from his perspective any good had come out of it.
Yes, he said. "We’ve approached by some medical people who are interested in doing some research,’’ he said.
This time someone besides Taser would fund it. Independent scientific inquiry is needed.
Because even though journalists, public relations specialists, politicians, consumers, investors, cops, medical examiners and company officials will all be involved in the debate over the stun guns’ safety, it’s the scientists who ought to have the biggest say.