Scottsdale-based Taser International said Monday a New York Times article critical of the stun gun's safety and the company's testing efforts was one-sided because it didn't mention the number of lives the weapon saved.
In a lengthy statement issued after the story ran in Sunday editions of the Times and the Tribune, the company “strongly refuted” a report that said the company has little evidence to support repeated claims its guns aren't deadly.
The Times said at least 50 people, including six in June, died since 2001 after being shocked. It also reported at least two medical examiners said Tasers were partly responsible for the deaths of two people in police custody. The company responded with recent examples showing people's lives who it said were saved becuase the stun gun. Taser said it conservatively estimates there are more than 5,000 incidents where the weapon saved a life or averted serious injuries.
“Where you will not find any such stories are in the recent New York Times article by Alex Berenson,” the company said in a statement. “The fact that the reporter refused to mention a single life-saving incident tells you all you need to know about his intentions. Mr. Berenson set out to write a negative article and succeeded. What he failed to do was give a balanced view of this critical new tool . . . that is helping police officers handle very difficult situations in ways they could never handle before our Taser technology was deployed to the patrol level officers.”
Berenson defended his story, saying he spoke to Taser CEO Rick Smith for close to six hours over three interviews. “He's quoted extensively in it and every study that is quoted in that story, every fact that's in the story, I gave them the opportunity to respond to,” he said. “And when they did respond, I tried to put that in the story.”
The company's stock fell $3.92 a share Monday, or nearly 10 percent, to close at $36.32. Because of reports of potential links between deaths of criminal suspects subdued by police with Tasers, the company's stock has been volatile. After soaring to nearly $60 a share on a split-adjusted basis in mid-April, Taser's stock declined to $25.10 on June 17 based on publicity about and investor disappointment with first quarter earnings, which nonetheless were a record.
The Times reported the company's safety studies on its Taser M26 consisted of tests on a single pig in 1996 and on five dogs in 1999. The studies were done by company paid researchers, not independent scientists, the paper said.
“These pigs that we tested in some cases took 280 back-to-back cycles,” said Steve Tuttle, company spokesman. “This is not just zapping a pig and going ‘Oh, wow. It worked pretty well. Let's go shoot people.’ They made it sound like we didn't do our homework.”
Aside from a continuing Defense Department study, the newspaper said no federal or state agencies have studied the effectiveness of the guns, and none have reviewed the deaths to determine what caused them.
Biomedical engineers, who separately examined the company's research at the request of the paper, said Taser has overstated the weapon's safety. Relatively small electric shocks can kill people whose heart's are weakened by disease or cocaine use, one of the engineers said. But no one knows if the stun gun's current crosses the threshold for those people, the paper said.
The company maintains their guns do not pack enough punch to cause defibrillation, even for people with heart conditions and pacemakers. In the company's rebuttal, Smith and his brother, Tom Smith, president of Taser, said “to go through the article line by line and correct all the misleading information would require a manuscript longer that the article itself.”
The company said the deaths resulted from drug overdoses or other factors that would have occurred anyway. Taser said an estimated 100,000 police officers have volunteered to be hit with the Taser with no deaths. The company took issue with the the Times' assertion that volunteers are shocked for less time than suspects. In training and in the field, the guns automatically fire for five seconds, the company said.
“That blows away what most clinical studies do at the federal Food and Drug Administration level when they usually do about 500 people with the exposures,” Tuttle said. The company also disputed the paper's statement that Taser-associated deaths are rising.
“Berenson reports that there were nine in-custody deaths in May and June 2004 in incidents where a Taser device was used along with other tactics and restraint procedures,” the company said. “What Mr. Berenson fails to report is that there were at least 29 additional unexpected in-custody deaths during roughly this same time period where the Taser was not used.
The fact is that Taser devices have never been named as the primary cause of death in any in-custody death, and any links as a contributing factor are subjective and unsupported by clear evidence.”
Taser is awaiting testing from the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Human Effects Center of Excellence that it expects will put to rest many concerns
“It would've added the independent side to it that everybody keeps claiming we don't have,” Tuttle said, adding the study will come from U.S. Air Force.
“We get ripped apart for funding our own research when that's exactly what every pharmaceutical company does in the world. They fund their own research and then it goes to the FDA and then it goes forward.” A consumer version of Tasers may be available at the mall as soon as this fall.
Taser International and retailer Sharper Image are negotiating to make the store the only national retailer to carry Tasers. Although Tasers have been publicly available through phone sales and the company Web site, www.taser.com, for more than eight years, some police officers worry that wider availability might open the door to criminal use.
‘‘It’s always a concern when there is a weapon out there that could be used to incapacitate an officer or put them at a severe disadvantage,’’ said Lt. Abdul Pridgen, spokesman for the Fort Worth, Texas, Police Department. ‘‘It could always fall into the wrong hands. You can only hope that responsible people are purchasing them.’’
The store would sell the Taser X26C, a variation of the Taser X26 and M26 toted by many police officers.
- The Fort Worth,Texas, Star-Telegram contributed to this report