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Next generation of stun guns

By Christine Boese
CNN Headline News

• New Scientist:  Sweeping stun guns to target crowdsexternal link
• Amnesty International:  Electro-shock Torture and the Spread of Stun Technologyexternal link
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Amnesty International

(CNN) -- Shocked, I'm just shocked, I say.

The June 16 issue of New Scientist made waves when it reported on a next generation of law enforcement "stun guns" supposedly capable of sweeping over entire crowds and from greater distances than the currently used Tasers.

These projected new crowd control devices, as described in the article, rely on electrical shock wizardry that defies the imagination.

Consider how conventional Tasers work: The victim is struck by two darts trailing wires going back to the gun. Those wires carry a 50,000-volt, 26-watt charge. Their range is limited to about 23 feet.

Controversy swirls around Tasers, used in 4,000 U.S. police departments according to New Scientist. Amnesty International has reports on its Web site warning of human rights and health issues.

While disabling and disorienting, Tasers have been deemed "safe" for police use, with claims that the charges won't harm pacemakers or trigger heart attacks and sudden death. Challenges to these claims are pending, but none have emerged with clear evidence.

Aside from potential risks to health, human rights advocates are concerned an electrical shock administered by police could constitute a significant punishment with no trial or finding of guilt. Are constitutional rights violated by a technology that, when used on hooded prisoners, would be considered torture?

The systems New Scientist lists as under development don't use wires to transfer the electrical current. Instead they shoot out very fine, conductive fibers, or use a process to ionize gas or plasma in the path of a laser to carry the current.

Logic says that where you can step down an electrical current to safe levels, you can also turn it up. There must be meters to measure and adjust charge levels, as well as prototypes that do carry deadly levels of shocking power. The military, through DARPA, is also researching these types of weapons.

The notion of spraying a crowd is also ethically problematic. We tend to think of ourselves as individuals in North America. A crowd as a unit raises boundary issues. Where is the edge of a crowd? Did all caught in the mosh pit choose to be there? Do all deserve indiscriminate electrical shocks?

I'm struck by a futuristic horror on par with a small neutron bomb, an atomic device considered (and rejected) during the Reagan administration because it would wipe out a population, but leave buildings and infrastructure intact, effectively "taking out" a very big crowd.

Few had the stomach for such weapons at the time, and attention turned elsewhere. Did research and development move to a smaller scale and a different technology to achieve the same net result?

I can only speculate, but I do know this: We must critically examine and choose carefully the technologies we unleash on our world. Technology isn't synonymous with progress. Sometimes it's a genie that won't go back into the bottle once let out.

Now would be a good time to debate the technology to electronically shock a crowd, before the tools are used, before terrorists, criminals, and rogue states steal them and turn up the juice, and before governments decide freedom of assembly is a luxury we can't afford.

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