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Security guards soon could carry stun guns
Bill would expand stun gun use beyond law enforcement.

AP | December 18, 2006
DAVID EGGERT

LANSING -- A little-noticed bill that would let more people use Tasers and stun guns in Michigan is awaiting Gov. Jennifer Granholm's likely signature, though critics hope she wields her veto pen.

The legislation approved by the state Senate 30-7 last week and passed unanimously by the House in September would exempt detention facilities and private security officers at some hospitals and malls from a ban against using stun guns. Police officers and others in law enforcement have been able to carry the weapons since 2002.

Stun guns and Tasers -- a police favorite because they can be fired from a distance -- temporarily disable people with electric shocks and are billed as a safer way to subdue combative suspects. But some question Taser-related deaths and worry the technology is used too routinely, not as a last resort.

"I'm not convinced they're so benign," says Sen. Liz Brater, an Ann Arbor Democrat who voted against the bill along with five other Democrats and a Republican. "They're being presented as if they're some kind of water pistol or something. That's not what they are."

The bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Rick Jones of Grand Ledge, responds that Tasers are a safer and better alternative to firing a gun. He says he could even support letting civilians carry Tasers if they have a concealed weapons permit.

"There will always be critics of any device," says Jones, a former sheriff in Eaton County, west of Lansing.

He argues that pepper spray, rubber bullets and other devices aren't perfect, either.

"It is important to give both police officers and corrections officers all the possible non-lethal options," Jones says.

Tasers fire barbs that can pierce the skin to deliver a 50,000-volt shock causing muscles to lock up.

In a March report, human rights group Amnesty International said it had logged more than 150 deaths involving Tasers across the country in the previous five years.

The rise in deaths, however, accompanied an increase in the number of law enforcement agencies using devices made by Taser International Inc. of Scottsdale, Ariz. About 1,000 of the nation's 18,000 police agencies used Tasers in 2001; 9,800 departments have them now.

Amnesty International is urging police departments to suspend the use of Tasers pending more independent study.

Dori Dinsmore, director of Amnesty's Midwest office, says her group isn't inherently against Tasers and supports the use of non-lethal weapons. But she worries about a lack of oversight when security officers are allowed to carry Tasers.

"Police departments are accountable to their communities," Dinsmore says, adding that citizens can meet with police chiefs and press for investigations involving deadly uses of Tasers. "Who's going to hold the private firms or civilian officers accountable?"

Taser chairman and co-founder Tom Smith says Tasers' benefits far outweigh their risks.

They give private security officers in other states a non-lethal alternative in crowded settings like malls and emergency rooms, reduce injuries to police officers and suspects, and decrease worker compensation claims, according to Smith. He notes that 43 states impose no restrictions on Tasers and let civilians buy them.

Smith says that of the 500,000 times Tasers have been used in demonstrations, training and in the field, they were deemed a contributing factor in 25 to 30 deaths. Many deaths involved a violent struggle with police in which the suspect was overweight, addicted to drugs, mentally ill or had a bad heart, Smith says.

Opponents of the legislation insist Tasers can exacerbate preexisting health conditions and are fired too many times at unarmed men with deadly consequences.

The bill says only those trained in the use, effects and risks of electro-muscular disruption devices could use them.

"We're supportive of the bill because it includes safety precautions," says Granholm spokeswoman Liz Boyd.

Stun guns and Tasers were mostly banned in Michigan until 2002, when lawmakers created an exception for police officers and security officers in prisons, courts and probation departments. A 2004 law lets county jail officers use Tasers, but the latest bill was introduced because officials felt city lockup centers were inadvertently overlooked.

The measure also would let officers at nine licensed private security agencies use Tasers, though it's unclear whether they actually will.

 

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