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Avoiding Nonlethal-Weapon Crime as Justification for Restricting Nonlethal Weapons Even When Firearms Are Allowed:

(As before, see the full article for more.)

The nonlethality of stun guns and irritant sprays does make it possible that such weapons will be abused in situations where firearms wouldn't be, though each such abuse would likely be much less harmful. Robbers might be likelier to stun victims than shoot them, precisely because this won't expose the robber to a murder charge (and because stun guns are quieter, even than firearms with illegal silencers). People looking for revenge, or trying to pull a prank, might stun or spray their victims even if they wouldn't have tried to kill them.

There are, though, three countervailing factors that should overcome this extra risk of abuse. First, nonlethal weapon bans, especially city- and state-level ones, are likely to have only modest effects on the already seemingly modest level of stun gun or irritant spray crime, precisely because much such crime would be perpetrated by serious criminals. Someone who is not stymied by the laws against robbery, rape, and kidnapping is unlikely to be much influenced by laws against possessing stun guns or sprays. (The Taser Corporation's products have a special "Anti-Felon Identification" feature that tries to reduce taser crime still further: "Every time a TASER cartridge is deployed, 20-30 small confetti-like Anti-Felon Identification (AFID) tags are ejected. Each AFID is printed with the serial number of the cartridge deployed, allowing law enforcement to determine which cartridge was fired." This feature, however, doesn't operate when the stun gun is used in contact mode; and it's not useful for tracing the stun gun if it has been stolen. I therefore won't rely on this feature in my analysis.

The bans would make it harder to buy nonlethal weapons locally, if such weapons (especially stun guns) remain rare enough that no black market develops. But many criminals would have no trouble visiting a neighboring state to buy the stun gun or the spray, or asking a friend to do that, or just driving out of town if the ban is only city-level. And bans on carrying stun guns, in jurisdictions that allow buying them, would be even easier for criminals to violate.

Second, a crime committed with a stun gun or irritant spray will often be a crime that would otherwise have been committed with a gun or a knife. This is especially true of robbery, rape, and kidnapping, but it may also be true of revenge attacks (for instance, by people who caught their spouses cheating).

Thus, nonlethal weapon bans might decrease painful stunnings or pepper spray attacks, but might increase knife and gun crimes that cause death, serious injury, and psychological trauma. And even if the stun gun crime or irritant spray crime would otherwise have been performed using only manual force, that too could have led to serious pain, to lasting injury, or even to death — especially given that the sorts of robbers who are likely to use manual force are likely ones who are strong enough to inflict significant injury.

Third, nonlethal weapon bans are likely to have a far greater effect on self-defense by law-abiding citizens than on attacks by criminals. A woman who wants a stun gun or irritant spray for self-defense is much more likely to be deterred by the threat of legal punishment for illegally buying, possessing, or carrying the nonlethal weapon than a criminal would be. And if she can't get the nonlethal weapon that works best for her, she might be less able to protect herself against robbery, rape, abuse, or even murder.

Why then do some jurisdictions treat nonlethal weapons — especially stun guns — worse than firearms? My sense is that it isn't because allowing stun guns is indeed more dangerous than allowing only firearms. Rather, it's because firearms bans draw public attention and hostility in ways that stun gun bans do not.

There is no well-organized National Stun Gun Association that has millions of members who fight proposed stun gun bans. There is no stun gun culture in which people remember being taught to use stun guns from an early age. Stun guns are too new and too rare for that. There is also no stun gun hunting, stun gun target-shooting, or stun gun collecting that makes people want to protect stun gun possession even when they feel little need to have stun guns for self-defense.

Moreover, many stun gun bans date back to the 1970s and 1980s, before the Taser Corporation started widely marketing guns to the public. At the time, stun guns might well have seemed like exotic weapons that are rarely used for self-defense by law-abiding citizens. It was therefore easy to ignore the effect of stun gun bans on self-defense, even in states whose laws reflected the potential value of firearms for self-defense. But today stun guns are practically viable self-defense weapons, owned by over 100,000 people. The self-defense interests of prospective stun gun owners in the no-stun-gun states ought not be ignored.

Much of this, of course, is speculation. There is no available data about how often stun guns or irritant sprays are used either criminally or defensively. The Uniform Crime Reports, our best source on crimes reported to the police, doesn't provide a category for such crime. Neither does the National Crime Victimization Survey, our best estimate of all crimes, whether or not reported to the police. Neither does the Centers for Disease Control's WISQARS Fatal Injury Reports and Nonfatal Injury Reports query system. So speculation is all we have, and it's all that the legislatures that banned stun guns or irritant sprays had.

But for the reasons I mentioned above, I think such speculation strongly points towards the choice selected by 43 states (minus a few cities) as to stun guns and 49 or 50 states (minus some restrictions in a few states) as to chemical sprays: allowing stun gun and chemical spray possession, and criminalizing only misuse. And this is especially so given the value of self-defense — a value that, as Part III discusses, is constitutionally recognized — and the value of freedom more broadly. If there is uncertainty, we should resolve this uncertainty in favor of letting law-abiding people use nonlethal tools to defend themselves and their families.

Lior:
If I had to guess, I'd say that the bureaucratic side of society is becoming increasingly suspicious of new things. If sugar or alcohol were discovered today they would be refused FDA authorization; alcohol would be probably classified as a dangerous drug. Access to experimental medical treatments is curtailed as much as possible even to those who have nothing to gain from existing treatments.

Similarly existing weapons are "grandfathered" in but new weapon should be banned "because there is no history of their use". Since there is no mechanism for proving them safe (unlike the FDA) you can't even hope to have the situation change some day, even if the ban isn't interfering with the possibility to find proofs.
4.16.2009 5:47pm
Joshua (mail):
There is no well-organized National Stun Gun Association that has millions of members who fight proposed stun guns.

I presume you mean "...stun gun bans or restrictions."

[D'oh! Thanks, fixed. -EV]
4.16.2009 7:13pm
RowerinVa (mail):
I don't think stun guns are of much, or perhaps any, value to self defense. They are terrific for subduing a person whom you want to handcuff, and they are almost entirely designed for this purpose only, and (here, I'm assuming, but I think with good reason) almost entirely used for that purpose. They require you to be very, very close to the target, so that you can have good aim (for the dart type) or actually touch the target (for the prod type), and they require a significant level of skill to operate successfully in any real and dangerous situation (as opposed to when zapping your roommate as a prank). On top of all that, stun guns do often injure and occasionally kill, so although they are "less lethal" (nonlethal is an incorrect term, which is not used by the military or police) than guns, they aren't guaranteed not to get you sued.

If you want to deter a crime with a revolver or shotgun, you wave it, and this is highly effective. Waving a stun gun at one criminal, if you are a homeowner, is likely to be totally ineffective and is idiocy if you suspect the criminal has his own weapon. Waving it at multiple criminals, or even using it on one person in a group of criminals, is guaranteed not to be effective.

A police officer, trained to fight hand-to-hand and possessing an actual firearm in case things go wrong, can effectively use a stun gun to subdue a suspect for arrest. If any part of the foregoing sentence is altered, use of a stun gun is not appropriate. And notice that nothing in that sentence is a self-defense situation, it's a law enforcement situation.

Please, don't buy a stun gun and think you have a defensive weapon. Your overconfidence is likely to put you in a worse position than if you knew you had nothing at all.
4.16.2009 10:03pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
A police officer, trained to fight hand-to-hand and possessing an actual firearm in case things go wrong, can effectively use a stun gun to subdue a suspect for arrest.
The official protocol around here is that officers will deploy a Taser only if there are officers with drawn handguns backing them up.

The latest NACOP survey says barely half (53.4%) of responding agencies use Tasers. There is a movement to prohibit their use for law enforcement and security.
4.17.2009 11:22am

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