Saturday, May 8, 2010

Taser Buzz Kill

After the recent amazement in the press about five healthy women being able to disarm one single man, I thought it might be a good idea to repost this article I wrote a couple of years ago for the Huffington Post. For some reason, HuffPost dropped most of the links I provided--weird, but there you go--and in my switch from PC to Mac this spring I seem to have lost the original. I've put a couple of URLs back in but don't have time to do all the research again. You'll just have to--okay, you don't have to, you're a grownup--take my word that all my arguments were supported with links to facts and figures.

There's been a lot of buzz in the press about women's Taser parties. (They're like Tupperware parties, but sell C2 Tasers instead of plastic tubs.)

These reports infuriate me.

Apparently, many women who go to these parties live in constant fear of violent sexual assault. And they believe that having a Taser will protect them. Perhaps they imagine a hooded stranger in their apartment or their parking lot. Perhaps they imagine that they will whip out the Taser, zap the bad guy, and a few minutes later watch as the cops march him off. Bloodless and neat. Her Taser is a "safety blanket," says Dana Shafman, the entrepreneur who started the parties; if she leaves the house without one she goes "into panic mode."

But it's not safety blankets that protect you. You do that.

You start by being informed. Most (68%) violent and/or sexual assaults are perpetrated by a man the woman knows. Most assaults happen in or near the woman's home (72%) or the home of a neighbor or friend (11%). You are much more likely to get hurt in your breakfast nook than in a dark alley. The man trying to hurt you is more likely to be your ex-husband or boyfriend or colleague than a hooded stranger. So, statistically, we're talking about Tasing someone you know who moves on you unexpectedly in close quarters, in a place where you feel safe. But, hey, no problem, because the Taser is pretty foolproof. Right?

Well, no, not exactly.

The C2 Taser electroshock weapon, sold in a range of pretty colours (and designed to look like a woman's electric razor), is a one-shot-only device, effective to a maximum of 15 feet. If you miss with your one shot, you have to use the Taser as a contact stun gun (known as dry Tasing). Dry Tasing is not particulary effective for putting someone down; it hurts but doesn't incapacitate. You have to hold the weapon against your target for at least five seconds - and trust me, it's difficult to do anything for even two seconds in a fight.

So don't miss with that first shot. But, hey, why would you? After all, it's easy to hit something as big as a man from 15 feet. Right?

Well, no, not exactly.

Maybe your assailant will announce politely from no more than 15' away that he wishes to hurt you, then stand still and wait patiently as you struggle to understand what's happening, remember where you put the Taser, pull it out, and aim. Maybe your hands won't be shaking from adrenaline.

Good. Then shoot him and put him down. Put the Taser on the floor next to him and walk away while, for 30 seconds (six times as long as the maximum used by police Tasers), the C2 pumps current into his nervous system. This could lead to permanent heart arrhythmias and/or fractured vertebrae. But why should you care? No doubt your assailant deserves it.

There again, the person getting damaged could end up being you. Like any weapon, the Taser can be taken away and used against you. Remember all those stories you've read about home owners killed by their own guns? I see no reason to suppose that the statistics for Taser owners would be any different.

A weapon is only useful if you're willing and able to use it when you're attacked. So if you buy a Taser (or pepper spray, or gun), be prepared to carry it with you everywhere -- the shower, the conference room, while taking out the garbage. Practice drawing it and firing it. Come up with all the what-if scenarios you can imagine, and rehearse them. A Taser isn't a magic amulet, able to protect you simply by existing. It's a tool (a moderately useless one, in my opinion), and it is as only as effective as the person using it.

The quote from a Taser buyer that disturbs me the most comes from an Arizona Taser party host. "If you know you're going to be in a certain situation where you might be uncomfortable, why not have it with you? It just makes you more confident."

And we're back with the notion of a safety blanket. But safety blankets have never saved anyone. Here's a better way to approach the possibility of danger: don't expect a weapon you haven't trained with for a hundred hours or more to function as a mystical shield. If you do, you'll be blunting your most powerful survival tool: your instincts. When you begin to feel uncomfortable in a situation - when you are afraid - that's your instincts, screaming at you that something is wrong. Those instincts can save your life. (Read Gavin de Becker's The Gift of Fear. Better, read my novel, Always, which is all about the women in a self-defense class who grow and learn and bond--and make awful choices.) Don't smother them under a safety blanket.

I taught self-defense for five years in the UK. It works. According to U.S. Department of Justice statistics, women fight off unarmed rapists successfully 72% of the time. If he has a knife, she'll fight him off 58% of the time. If he has a gun, she has a 51% chance. Unarmed, untrained: if you fight back, you'll probably win. But if weapons make you feel better, then just look around you -- they're everywhere. In your purse: perfume, nail file, phone. In your kitchen: cleaning spray, fire extinguisher, all those knives. In your car: air freshener, cigarette lighter, and the car itself.

The world, as Aud Torvingen would say, is a "garden of weaponry." Tasers are the least of these. The most important are the ones you always have with you: your mind, your common sense, your bravery. Your best weapon is yourself.

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