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Are tasers the new must-have accessory for women?

Ursula Carlson
for the Appeal

About a week or so ago, I was reading my way through the latest issue of the New Yorker magazine when I came upon a brief piece called “Girl Stuff Have Gun.” (March 3, 2008 issue). Being a girl (definitely an older “girl”) and one who remembers the equally old television show “Have Gun, Will Travel,” I immediately read it.

The short article, written by Lizzie Widdicombe, describes a Taser (stun gun) saleswoman named Dana Shafman who is on her way to Connecticut to demonstrate the virtues of a Taser at a Tupperware style “party” held by Dana’s cousin Robin Beitman.

Ms. Widdicombe describes the food (women always have food at these type of things): hummus, cookies, grapes, and pink lemonade. The atmosphere is homey and cozy – an ironic setting given the nature of the subject: stun guns.

To me, the scene becomes more and more surreal. The new stun gun, the Taser C2 (which is the brand name) shoots 50,000 volts of electricity, but the implication is that it’s not like REALLY shooting a gun because the “gun” actually looks like an electric shaver and comes in three iridescent colors: pink, blue, and silver. In other words, it’s very “user friendly.” This is definitely a desirable quality to have since the assumption is that women either don’t like or approve of guns, or they are afraid of them.

Sure enough, what does Dana Shafman say but “I want people to get comfortable with the product.” Get comfortable with the “product,” not with the “stun gun.” And “get comfortable,” instead of “get trained.” Not only that, but Shafman adds, “I want people to play with them, if they so desire.” What does that mean? Fondle them? Stroke them? (Guns easily lend themselves to metaphoric interpretation).

Before I go any further, let me say that I find almost all euphemisms objectionable. So, when I see the word “taser” I think there’s a euphemism, despite the fact that taser is an acronym for “Thomas A Swift’s Electric Rifle.” The maker of this stun gun, it would seem, is afraid that “gun” gives people the wrong impression. The fact that the C2 Taser looks like an electric razor and comes in pastel colors is yet another way to hide the fact that this weapon has consequences for the victim.

So how does this particular gun work? It has a sliding safety switch and a single cartridge (one shot). The spring-loaded mechanism shoots out two fishhook-like metal probes that are attached to wire filaments. When the trigger is pulled, the metal probes are propelled (no farther than 15 feet away) into the victim’s body like darts, creating a closed circuit and sending up to 50,000 volts of electricity for up to 30 seconds, according to Widdicombe.

There is more controversy about the use of Tasers than one might think – not only by police, but by civilians. In an article, “Eye-catching new Taser sparks controversy” written for the Reuters news service (Aug. 15, 2007), David Schwartz writes that the C2 Taser “can legally be sold to consumers in all but seven U.S. states. It is largely banned for civilian use throughout the rest of the world.”

One of the major concerns about taser use is that it undermines other ways of resolving difficult situations by being an “easy” way to subdue anyone who behaves in a way that the taser-wielding person might consider threatening or alarming. In other words, it encourages “shoot first, ask questions later” because the assumption is that the stun gun doesn’t permanently harm the victim. Organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations Committee against Torture go further in their language, maintaining that the use of Tasers can be a form of torture.

There have been a number of alleged fatalities as a result of “tasering,” in both the U.S. and Canada, although in many cases it is difficult for coroners to isolate the “one” cause of death, especially if there are other extenuating circumstances. The final report on tasers does not seem to be in yet, but I can say that Dana Shafman has not convinced me to buy one.

The most effective use of a gun (of any kind) is psychological, I think. The key is to avoid shooting. Here is my favorite example: My friend and coauthor Hunt Janin – a careful man who knows about guns (and a former Foreign Service Officer) was stationed at the American Embassy in Beirut during a time of civil war. He carried a .45 caliber pistol for a very unusual reason. In Beirut, everything was known. Hunt wanted any potential hostage-takers to know that he could NOT be taken hostage: He would be trying to get his pistol into action and they would have to shoot him first! If so, (he reasoned) they would decide to look for another hostage.

• Fresh Ideas: Starting conversations by sharing personal perspectives about timely and timeless issues. Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.