August 16, 2008 update: 60 more people have died since Robert Dziekanski after being Tasered by police, including five Canadians…

TASER International, Inc., the Scottsdale, Arizona public company (NASDAQ: TASR) that makes the controversial stun gun of the same name, wages an aggressive and misleading PR campaign to persuade the public that its product is safe. It has enlisted law enforcement members in its promotional efforts, giving many of them cash payments and stock options. TASER International executives dress in funereal black and hold flashy promotions, like the poker and Playboy parties advertised below:

Is there substance behind the glitz? The death of a law-abiding Polish immigrant at Vancouver International Airport, the sixth man to die in British Columbia after being Tasered, has again raised some public concerns about the weapon’s safety. Here are some things that TASER International and its customers would prefer remain unreported:

At least 286 people in North America have died since 2001 after being stunned by the TASER’s 50,000 volt discharge. Many of these cases involved multiple applications of electrical energy applied in “drive-stun” mode.

According to a study reported in the peer-reviewed journal NAFE entitled “Forensic Engineering Analysis of Electro-Shock Weapon Safety” (December 2005, p. 19), “we can conclude the Taser M18 M26 can be lethal when used in the drive-stun mode of operation and can kill when contrasted to the reference criteria contained in commercial consensus standards and in other scholarly publications”.

There is no way of knowing whether individual Taser weapons meet the manufacturer’s specifications. As there are no Canadian safety testing standards of any kind for the devices, it is entirely possible that some weapons discharge much more electrical energy than they are supposed to, and that police officers are unwittingly killing people as a result.

TASER and the law enforcement community often point to other factors that they say actually cause death, such as drug or alcohol use or a phenomenon they have coined “excited delirium”, which is not a recognised medical condition. TASER International says so-called “excited delirium” is a potentially fatal condition. Here are some questions: How many people have died of “excited delirium” in the last five years in situations that did not involve law enforcement? Do people only reach potentially lethal levels of excitement or delirium when they are accosted by peace officers?

The proponents of Tasers have not explained why a number of domestic animals, including dogs and pigs, died after being shocked. One such livestock fatality occurred earlier this year in Spokane, Washington, where a loose cow was repeatedly Tasered by sheriffs until it collapsed and died.

Tasers are arguably being overused by police. They have reportedly been used to shock children as young as six (in Florida) and an 82 year old woman was recently shocked in Chicago. Amnesty International studied 271 fatalities and found that the victim was unarmed in all but 22 of the cases. Most of these victims were no risk to anyone.

Clearly, Tasers are involved in taking, not saving, lives.