New York Times: NAZARETH, Pa. July 18, 2004 - As the sun set on June 24, something snapped in Kris J. Lieberman, an unemployed landscaper who lived a few miles from this quiet town. For 45 minutes, he crawled deliriously around a pasture here, moaning and pounding his head against the weedy ground.
Eventually the police arrived, carrying a Taser M26, an electric gun increasingly popular with law enforcement officers nationwide. The gun fires electrified barbs up to 21 feet, hitting suspects with a disabling charge.
The officers told Mr. Lieberman, 32, to calm down. He lunged at them instead. They fired their Taser twice. He fought briefly, collapsed and died.
Mr. Lieberman joined a growing number of people, now at least 50, including 6 in June alone, who have died since 2001 after being shocked. Taser International, which makes several versions of the guns, says its weapons are not lethal, even for people with heart conditions or pacemakers. The deaths resulted from drug overdoses or other factors and would have occurred anyway, the company says.
But Taser has scant evidence for that claim. The company's primary safety studies on the M26, which is far more powerful than other stun guns, consist of tests on a single pig in 1996 and on five dogs in 1999. Company-paid researchers, not independent scientists, conducted the studies, which were never published in a peer-reviewed journal. Taser has no full-time medical director and has never created computer models to simulate the effect of its shocks, which are difficult to test in human clinical trials for ethical reasons.
What is more, aside from a continuing Defense Department study, the results of which have not been released, no federal or state agencies have studied the safety, or effectiveness, of Tasers, which fall between two federal agencies and are essentially unregulated. Nor has any federal agency studied the deaths to determine what caused them. In at least two cases, local medical examiners have said Tasers were partly responsible. In many cases, autopsies are continuing or reports are unavailable.
The few independent studies that have examined the Taser have found that the weapon's safety is unproven at best. The most comprehensive report, by the British government in 2002, concluded "the high-power Tasers cannot be classed, in the vernacular, as `safe.' " Britain has not approved Tasers for general police use.
A 1989 Canadian study found that stun guns induced heart attacks in pigs with pacemakers. A 1999 study by the Department of Justice on an electrical weapon much weaker than the Taser found that it might cause cardiac arrest in people with heart conditions. In reviewing other electrical devices, the Food and Drug Administration has found that a charge half as large as that of the M26 can be dangerous to the heart.
While Taser says that the M26 is not dangerous, it now devotes most of its marketing efforts to the X26, a less powerful weapon it introduced last year. Both weapons are selling briskly. About 100,000 officers nationally now have Tasers, 20 times the number in 2000, and most carry the M26. Taser, whose guns are legal for civilian use in most states, hopes to expand its potential market with a new consumer version of the X26 later this summer.
For Taser, which owns the weapon's trademark and is the only company now making the guns, the growth has been a bonanza. Its stock has soared. Its executives and directors, including a former New York police commissioner, Bernard B. Kerik, have taken advantage, selling $60 million in shares since November.
Patrick Smith, Taser's chief executive, said the guns are safe. "We tell people that this has never caused a death, and in my heart and soul I believe that's true," Mr. Smith said.
Taser did not need to disclose the British results to American police departments, he said. "The Brits are extremely conservative," he said. "To me, this is sort of boilerplate, the fine print." In addition to Taser's animal trials, thousands of police volunteers have received shocks without harm, Mr. Smith said.