"The TASER is the only weapon the police have that doesn't rely on pain compliance," Ashley says. Batons, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets can be used as nonlethal law enforcement tools, but they are only effective if a suspect ultimately surrenders. Although such weapons are often referred to as "less lethal," Ashley disagrees with this characterization. "Nothing is risk-free," he says, adding, "A TASER is not less lethal, it's nonlethal."
There are hitches. For instance, TASERs will not work properly in situations where the probes get caught in a target's clothing too far from the body to deliver a jolt, only one probe makes contact or the wires connecting the probes to the gun are damaged. "We need that tool that will absolutely incapacitate someone for 10–to–15 seconds without longterm effect," Ashley says. "TASER gets us closer to that than any other weapon has."
An investigation into the mid-October death of Robert Dziekanski, 40, at Vancouver International Airport after Royal Canadian Mounted Police used a TASER to subdue him will either confirm or contradict Ashley's view. Investigations are also underway into the deaths a month later of Robert Knipstrom, 36, in Chilliwack, British Columbia, and Howard Hyde, 45, in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, after they were TASERed.
The technology on which current TASER weaponry is based was created in the 1970s by physicist John H. "Jack" Cover, a former director of science and engineering for the space division of aircraft maker North American Aviation (which Boeing bought in 1996). Cover's invention, however, required the use of gunpowder to discharge its probes and was considered a firearm. Cover named his invention "TASER" after a fictional weapon in Victor Appleton's 1911 adventure book Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle.
TASER International's first widely used product—the AIR TASER Model 34000, which ran on a nine-volt battery—hit the market in late 1994. When the trigger on the 34000 was pressed, it would administer a charge for 30 seconds during which the shooter could place the device on the ground and get a safe distance away from the person receiving the jolt, says Steve Tuttle, the company's vice president of communications.
For the Advanced TASER M26 that debuted in 1999, the company tweaked the number of pulses per second and their duration in order to achieve a higher level of muscle incapacitation. The goal was to do a better job of stopping individuals aggressive enough to overcome the previous model's charge, which Tuttle says stopped 84 percent of people. The M26, which ran on eight AA batteries, also recorded the time and date each time it was fired as a means of curbing misuse.
The X26 followed in 2003 and was 60 percent lighter and smaller than its predecessor, in part because it ran on two lithium ion camera batteries. In addition to having two LED lights to illuminate a target, the X26 also featured a new waveform that, Tuttle says, more efficiently delivered a shock to the body. Whereas the range of earlier TASERs was 15 feet (4.6 meters), the X26's probes could travel as far as 35 feet (10.5 meters).
The next generation TASER—the eXtended Range Electronic Projectile (XREP)—is being designed to fire wireless probes as far as 65 feet (20 meters) from a half-ounce (14-gram) cartridge that fits into any standard 12-gauge shotgun. TASER plans to start training instructors in the XREP's use by the middle of next year. Another new weapon under development is the Shockwave, which Tuttle refers to as "an area-denial system" that simultaneously fires six TASER cartridges up to 25 feet. Scheduled for availability late next year, the Shockwave is designed to be used by military and Homeland Security personnel at airports, checkpoints and other open spaces.