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Study links law enforcement Tasers to more than 1,000 deaths

Tasers were supposed to be a non-lethal alternative to firearms. But more than 1,000 American citizens have died when police used stun guns on them.

The Reuters news agency tracked Taser-related deaths across the United States over the last two decades. The report is a “shocking” expose of how dangerous stun weapons can be even in the hands of trained law enforcement.

Tasers are more deadly than we were led to believe

In its “Shock Tactics” report, Reuters documented 1,005 cases in which people died after law enforcement personnel deployed Tasers against them. In about one-fourth of those cases, Tasers were the only means of force used and were considered the primary cause of death.

In the other cases, police also employed other use of force – such as choke holds, batons, dogs or firearms — but the electric shock may have contributed to the fatal outcome. For example, the study includes a 2014 death here in Greenville County. The autopsy concluded the man died from complications of an existing heart condition, but that the altercation — the Taser jolt and the weight of an officer on his back — were contributing factors.

Should police have stun guns?

About 90 percent of U.S. law enforcement agencies use Tasers. The manufacturer says their weapons have been deployed safely in 3 million encounters, and that fatalities are due to other use of force, underlying health conditions or the victims’ own actions.

In many of the fatal police encounters, the victims were not only unarmed but suffering from mental illness, seizure disorders or emotional breakdowns. That suggests that police are not properly trained on the use of Tasers or are not using them in accordance with policy.

In 2016, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that law enforcement cannot use Tasers to subdue citizens who pose no threat. The ruling involved a mentally ill North Carolina man who died after police zapped him five times with a Taser for refusing to be transported to a hospital.

Rather than sparing lives and avoiding lawsuits, Tasers have proven to be a public safety risk and a liability for police. Of the 400-plus wrongful death lawsuits against government entities, about 60 percent have resulted in judgments or settlements for plaintiffs. The family of the Greenville County man received $500,000. In 2013, the family of an Anderson County man settled with the government for an undisclosed amount. There is also a pending case from 2016 in which another Anderson County man died after being tased multiple times.

Should civilians have stun guns?

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts recently ruled that stun guns can be regulated but not banned. The court struck down legislation that made it illegal for Massachusetts civilians to own and carry stun guns.

Many citizens opt for stun guns as a non-lethal form of self-defense. However, high-voltage stun guns can be dangerous and deadly, especially when applied to the face or head, or if used in a punitive way or for recreational pranks. In private hands, Tasers have also been used for nefarious purposes — muggings, sexual assaults and kidnappings.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the Massachusetts high court said a ban on Tasers and stun guns violates the Second Amendment. Massachusetts lawmakers have 60 days to amend the law to restrict stun guns without prohibiting them outright. For example, the state could require licensing, ban stun guns from certain places like courtrooms and schools, and establish categories of people who aren’t allowed to possess them.

South Carolina does not ban or specifically regulate stun guns/Tasers. They are legal to possess and carry, subject to the same restrictions as firearms.