AUSTIN, Tex. — Cary Young jabbed the prongs of the plastic weapon against the flesh of his large arm, punched a button and sent 45,000 volts of electricity coursing through his body.
Because he had zapped himself for only a fraction of a second, the only visible ill-effect was two spots that looked like a snake bite where the prongs had touched the skin. A few more seconds of voltage and Young might have crumpled to the floor, but, as it was, he stood up at his secretary's bidding and went to answer a telephone call from the FBI.
Young was demonstrating his company's hottest and most controversial product, the Nova XR 5000 Stun Gun, the latest entry into the ever-expanding self-protection market. Only slightly larger than an electric razor and, at $79.95, less expensive than a cheap hand gun, it is being billed as the answer for persons who want protection but do not want to own a gun. The manufacturer, Nova Technologies of Austin, says the stun gun cannot kill but can immobilize a mugger for up to 1 1/2 minutes.
More often than not, the company says, it would be used to momentarily shock an attacker, making him feel as if he had just put his finger into a lamp socket, encouraging him to make a fast getaway. It takes a three- to five-second jolt to actually immobilize someone.
In Great Demand
The hand-held Nova, a distant relative of the wire and antenna Taser guns used by many police departments to stun at short range, has been on the market for 19 months, and the demand is so great that many gun stores cannot keep them in stock. According to Nova, 150,000 have been distributed, and 250 law enforcement agencies are either using or testing them.
One gun shop, Rebel Guns in the Houston suburb of Humble, has sold 300 stun guns in the last five months. "Women are buying them because a lot of them are leery of guns," sales manager Bill Wagner said. "They don't know how to use guns and, besides, they don't want to kill anybody."
Ken Wilcox, a Sugarland, Tex., gunsmith who saw his first stun gun at a weapons collection show, described his reaction: "There were a bunch of people crowded around this one guy. He had this little plastic thing with two prongs a couple of inches apart. There was a blue arc jumping between them. It was very powerful. I could feel it in my nose and mouth. It was almost like I could smell the power."
That power is a source of some controversy. Nova calls the stun gun the ultimate weapon for the average citizen, but others believe that its use should be restricted to law enforcement officials.
Fears of Misuse
Chief Michael Manick of the Union City, Calif., police department said his force was the first in the state to employ stun guns. He calls them highly effective but fears their misuse.
"I am not for public ownership of the stun gun," he said. "We need less weapons on the street. The Nova will take down a police officer too. It's extremely effective."
Sgt. Ron Hearn of the Douglas County, Neb., Sheriff's Department disagrees. "I would rather see John Doe with this under his car seat than a .357 magnum," he said.
Hearn's department is testing the stun gun for police work. It commissioned a study of the weapon's potential medical hazards, which found no major health hazards.
Few Incidents of Abuse
Nova insists that the stun gun would hardly be the weapon of choice for a mugger or a rapist because the first reaction from a voltage zap would be to jump and run. The company says that there have been only five to 10 incidents of abuse since the gun went on sale l9 months ago.
At the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, a clearinghouse of federal justice related-documents in Rockville, Md., spokesman Bart Stringham said there are no federal reports on the use of the stun gun. "There just hasn't been any federal funding to test this kind of thing," he said. Nevertheless, incidents involving the stun gun have been gaining attention on both coasts.
Last Monday, federal marshals in Brooklyn, N.Y., used stun guns to immobilize three prisoners in a courtroom melee. The marshals, who had been trained by Nova personnel, called the incident justified use of force. But Christopher Stanley, lawyer for one of the prisoners being arraigned on charges of bombing of corporations in the New York City area, called the use of the stun guns "outrageous."
Found in Baggage
In California, Todd Kevin Wallace was arrested Feb. 9 as he was deplaning at the Ontario Airport and charged with stealing airline tickets. When his baggage was searched, a stun gun was found, and he now also faces a charge of possession of a concealed and dangerous weapon on an aircraft. A conviction on that charge could put the stun gun in the dangerous weapon category, which might, in turn, lead to restrictions on its sale.
That was the reason for the phone call that Young received just after giving himself a jolt to demonstrate the Nova XR 5000. The FBI was calling with the particulars of the case.