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New Taser Guns Aim for Bigger Things


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — When his brother's two football buddies were killed in a drive-by shooting a decade ago, Tom Smith and his brother began thinking more seriously about how to protect themselves and their family from violent criminals.

Tom and Rick Smith's father was frequently out of town and they knew their mother wouldn't feel comfortable having a gun in the house. In their search for a so-called "less-lethal" weapon, the brothers stumbled across the Taser, a weapon developed in the 1970s that fires electrically charged darts to temporarily immobilize an attacker.

But the Smiths questioned the Taser's effectiveness in subduing criminals. There were many instances where highly agitated suspects on drugs weren't stopped, even by repeated shocks.

To the Smiths, the 1970s Taser was a great start, but it was in serious need of retooling and upgrading.

"We got together with the original developer, gleaned the information and took it and ran from there," said Tom Smith, now president of Taser International.

The brothers founded the company in 1993 and launched their own product, the Air Taser--a hand-held remote stun system. It was originally sold on the consumer market in stores such as Sharper Image, but sales weren't as brisk as the brothers had hoped.

"We realized we were missing a vital element," Tom Smith said. "And that was endorsement from law enforcement and having them use it."

Today, Taser International continues to sell the Air Taser but also sells a pistol-shaped model, the Advanced Taser, which was developed with input from law enforcement officials. About 1,000 law enforcement agencies across the country have purchased M-26 Advanced Tasers.

The company also has made headlines since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and at the Pentagon.

On Friday, United Airlines announced it will be the first major airline to install Taser stun devices in its more than 600 jetliner cockpits if the U.S. government approves.

United, which said last week it was close to a decision on the Taser installation, is awaiting Federal Aviation Administration permission, said spokesman Andy Plews. Taser International Inc. Chairman Phillips Smith said United will buy 1,300 of the stun guns for more than $800,000 if their installation is approved.

Several other airlines, including British Airways and American Trans Air, also are considering arming their pilots or flight attendants with Tasers, while Mesa Air Group has said it would go forward with a purchase if the Federal Aviation Administration and Congress approves the idea.

One Middle Eastern airline already has Tasers on board.

"The major airlines that we're talking to . . . are working to hopefully get this to be the standard, that it becomes part of aircraft equipment, like flashlights and fire extinguishers," he said.

The company's current focus remains on law enforcement sales, with a hope to bolster consumer sales in the future.

Taser International has been increasing its sales. The company earned $4 million in net sales for the nine months ending Sept. 30, compared with $2.4 million for the same period in 2000.

The M-26, which is sold only to law enforcement, runs on eight AA batteries and uses a cartridge of compressed nitrogen to propel two probes up to 21 feet at 250 feet per second. The probes, actually straightened lightweight fish hooks, are connected to the Taser by two strands of high-voltage insulated copper wire.

When fired, 50,000 volts of electricity are transmitted in a five-second blast, temporarily paralyzing the targeted person. It can penetrate through two inches of clothing.

"It's definitely not a pleasant experience," Tom Smith said.

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