Councilman's bill sparks back-and-forth on Tasers

Shootings in elementary schools. Violent flash mobs in malls. Robberies, home invasions, muggings.

With such crimes reported around the United States, and the media giving them around-the-clock attention, it's no wonder ordinary Americans are feeling more vulnerable than ever.

So says Anne Arundel County Councilman Derek Fink, a Pasadena Republican who introduced a bill this month that would allow county residents to carry Tasers and stun guns as a way of defending themselves.

"Some people aren't comfortable with carrying firearms. These [devices] would offer an alternative means of self-defense," Fink said. "They'll give law-abiding people a chance to feel safe."

When Fink introduced the bill at a March 18 council meeting, the move attracted attention throughout the region. But in fact, a Maryland law passed in 2009 already makes it legal for citizens to carry a Taser or a stun gun if they are 18 or older, pass a criminal background check and meet a few other requirements.

"I'm simply extending to county residents a right the state already grants them," said Fink, an outspoken proponent of the Second Amendment right to bear arms.

Individual counties can override the state law, as Anne Arundel and a few others currently do. The Anne Arundel charter specifies that only police officers may carry the devices.

Fink's bill would remove that limitation, a prospect that leaves some in the county unnerved.

"A Taser shoots an electrified metal probe into a person's body. The probes are like little fishhooks," said O'Brien Atkinson, president of the county's Fraternal Order of Police. "If you're not trained on how to use one, you can put a probe in someone's eye. For the average person to use a Taser is very, very dangerous."

The state law, Section 4-109 of the state criminal code, says qualified Marylanders may legally carry an "electronic control device," which it defines as a "portable device designed as a weapon capable of injuring, immobilizing, or inflicting pain on an individual by the discharge of electrical current."

Gov. Martin O'Malley signed it into law in May 2009.

The language incorporates both Tasers and stun guns, the two most widely used such devices. Both are classified as nonlethal weapons, though there are significant differences between the two.

Experts say a stun gun, which must come into contact with the body of the target, transfers between 50,000 and 300,000 volts of current at 3 amperes — enough to incapacitate without causing injury. A half-second jolt can startle a victim, one to two seconds can create a dazed mental state, and three or more seconds can cause loss of balance and muscle control.

A Taser, law enforcement's much more common weapon of choice, uses a compressed gas cartridge to project charged electrodes up to 35 feet. Imparting up to 50,000 volts of current, it also incapacitates a subject by interrupting the brain's control of the muscles.

Stun guns can cost as little as $40. Tasers start much higher, in the $300 range. Both can be purchased online.

Police have long considered the Taser a better choice for subduing unruly suspects than the stun gun or, say, pepper spray, bare hands or extendible batons, all of which must be used at close range.

"It gives police officers another less-than-lethal form to bring a person or situation under control," Atkinson said, adding that since the county began allowing police to use Tasers in 2007, the number of officer injuries and suspect injuries has seen a decline.

Giving them to citizens, he said, is another matter, in part because Fink's bill does not require members of the public to undergo the eight hours of training that police officers face if they want to use the devices.

Some critics allege Fink introduced the measure for political reasons during a nationwide public debate on gun control that has grown more intense since a shooter killed 20 children at a Connecticut elementary school last December.

The Maryland Senate has already passed sweeping gun-control measures introduced by O'Malley in January. The legislation is currently in the House of Delegates.

Fink said there's no truth to that. He said he learned only a few weeks ago that the state makes Taser and stun gun use legal, and that Anne Arundel had narrowed those rights for county residents.

Baltimore City and Baltimore and Howard counties are among the few local jurisdictions that bar citizens from owning the devices.

"Why now? I waited until some of the high-profile stuff died down a little, like the stormwater fee bill and the appointment of [new County Executive Laura] Neuman," he said. "If I'd have learned about this a year and a half ago, I'd have introduced it then."

Fink said it only makes sense that a state that permits qualified residents to carry handguns, which can kill and maim, should allow the same residents to carry a less lethal form of self-protection.

His bill calls for potential Taser and stun gun owners to meet the same qualifications gun owners must meet — they must be 18 or older, pass a criminal background check and be given visual or audiovisual instruction on the use of the device at time of purchase.

The bill also stipulates fines of up to $3,000 and jail time of up to three years for violators of the law.

Fink agrees it's possible for Tasers to fall into the wrong hands, and that some might even use the devices to commit crimes. But he said that's the case with any weapon.

"Any argument you can make against Tasers, you can make against firearms," he said. "The idea is not to let criminals dictate how law-abiding citizens can and can't defend themselves."

He said he's cautiously optimistic he can get the four votes needed to pass the measure.

The council will host a public hearing on the matter at its April 15 meeting. If the bill passes, it would become law within 45 days.

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