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Why Do Tasers Look Like Guns Anyway?

Axon’s Taser 7. Photo: Sascha Schuermann/Getty Images

“Why do we even have Tasers that operate and function and feel and deploy exactly like a firearm?” St. Paul, Minnesota mayor Melvin Carter wondered at a press conference on Monday following the nearby fatal police shooting of Daunte Wright. A Brooklyn Center police officer Kim Potter was seen on body camera footage yelling “Taser! Taser! Taser!” before pulling the trigger on what was actually her Glock pistol, firing a single shot that killed Wright. “Holy shit, I just shot him,” she yelled afterward.

On Wednesday, Potter was charged with second-degree manslaughter, making her at least the sixth law-enforcement officer since 2009 to be criminally charged after shooting people with firearms that they supposedly mixed up with Tasers, according to Philip Stinson, a former police officer and criminologist at Bowling Green State University.

Law enforcement experts call it “weapon confusion,” a quintessential bit of American poetry that describes the mistake officers make when — whether due to adrenaline, stress, equipment design, distraction, or poor training — they grab the wrong weapon on their belt. Also known as “capture error,” it’s rare, but its repercussions are often disastrous. In 2001, a police officer in Sacramento accidentally shot Steven Yount under such circumstances, paralyzing him. A transit officer in San Francisco infamously shot and killed Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day in 2009. A reserve sheriff’s deputy in Tulsa, Oklahoma killed Eric Harris, an unarmed Black man in 2015. The year before, a deputy sheriff in Maryland shot Frederick Henry, shattering his elbow, though he survived. These are some of the 18 documented times, by many experts’ count, that officers mistakenly fired guns instead of Tasers since the “less than lethal” electrical weapon was widely adopted by law enforcement over the past two decades.

“That’s just the tip of the iceberg, in my opinion,” said Stinson. “How many times does this happen when officers don’t deploy their weapons? Or when they shoot and it doesn’t hit their target? We just don’t know how bad this situation is.”

So, why were Tasers designed to look and feel like guns, to be drawn out of holsters like guns, and to be fired at the pull of a trigger like a gun?

The best answer may be found from a lawsuit over a police shooting in California chillingly similar to the one that played out in Minnesota last weekend. In 2002, Marcy Noriega, a police officer in Madera, California, was on patrol when she reached for her Taser but instead grabbed her Glock. Apparently shaken by her own weapon confusion, Noriega reported it to a supervising officer, who told her to spend more time training — practice makes perfect. Less than a year later, Noriega made the same mistake, but this time she pulled the trigger and killed Everardo Torres, a 24-year-old boxing instructor who had been handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle following a noise complaint.

Torres’s parents filed a lawsuit against Noriega, the city of Madera, and Taser International. Madera in turn blamed Taser for designing its weapon in the shape of a handgun. During a 2004 deposition for the lawsuit, Rick Smith, the company’s CEO and founder, Rick Smith, was asked why he had designed the weapon that way. “If the design was intended to meet the objectives and the wants of our target audience, being the use-of-force experts in law enforcement, based on their feedback, as enumerated here, we conformed the weapon to those muscle memory and skills,” Smith replied. “Training officers that would be our customers told us it was important that it conform to those training and muscle skills.” In short, Tasers were designed to look and feel like a gun because cops wanted them to look and feel like a gun.

That design hasn’t changed much since it was first developed and distributed to law enforcement agencies in the early 1990s, said Greg Meyer, a retired captain in the Los Angeles Police Department who testified as an expert witness in the Oscar Grant case. The Tasers police use today may look like guns, but the original stun-gun, patented in 1974, actually functioned like a gun. Inspired by the sci-fi story “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle,” the darts in Jack Cover’s original design were propelled by gunpowder, which subjected the weapon to regulation by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Smith and his brother redesigned Cover’s invention to use compressed air to fire its electrified prongs — making it no longer a firearm under the law. Smith, whose company is now named Axon Enterprise,  recently told Forbes he hoped Tasers would make police pistols redundant by 2030.

In a statement to Intelligencer, Axon said its weapons were “the safest and most effective weapon available to law enforcement officers,” though not without risk. The company said it had reduced the risk of error by changing the grip on its weapon, offering Tasers in yellow to differentiate them from the typical black or silver finish of pistols, and adding a LED control panel which lights up when the safety is taken off. “It is contained in a holster that is different and separate from the officer’s firearm,” the company added. The company has also recommended officers holster their Tasers on the opposite hip of their dominant hand where their handguns are holstered for quick access, a recommendation headed by many departments. These basic preventative measures weren’t enough to keep Potter from killing Wright: Her department issued her a yellow Taser and it was holstered on the opposite side of her service pistol, according to investigators.

Potter’s weapon confusion is just another example of how woefully inadequate Axon’s recommendations are, according to Gerald Takano, a retired lieutenant in Raleigh, North Carolina, who studies use-of-force incidents.

“I was asked to look at it for the Raleigh Police Department in 2004 and immediately I had a concern for capture errors. It wasn’t just the shape of the tool, but the trigger squeeze and safety error, targeting errors,” Takano said. “It’s shaped like a gun because of market research. The problem is that the officers who they asked didn’t foresee capture errors, they didn’t understand that someone could mix up the two tools under distraction.”

According to Takano, the average police officer simply doesn’t get enough training with Tasers, which matters far more than changing a Taser’s color, weight, or the hip on which it’s holstered. While police officers will fire their service weapon at least a few hundred times annually during training, they may only fire their Taser the requisite two or three times during a one-day training session.

Dramatic changes to Taser designs would also greatly reduce weapon confusion, Takano said.

“Having it shaped like a flashlight or a razor would be good. The firing motion should not be a trigger finger, it should be a thumb. Axon is actually very open to these ideas, ” said Takano, who has been certified by Axon as a master instructor. “But then they get feedback from officers who want it shaped like a gun.”

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Why Do Tasers Look Like Guns Anyway?