Every Saturday afternoon in Scottsdale, Ariz., women gather at Dana Shafman's house to watch demonstrations of her sleek new wares, which come in such enticing colors as "metallic pink" and "electric blue." It's like a Tupperware party … only not. Shafman is peddling Tasers. Hers look a lot different from those bulky blasters carried by cops: they resemble something you'd shave your legs with, and at five and a half inches in length, they're small enough to slip into a purse. But don't be fooled. These babies deliver the same 50,000 volts of muscle-paralyzing electroshock therapy.
Looking for the perfect Christmas gift for that special someone who wants to pack heat but doesn't want to mess with bullets? At $299 to $349, the C2 Personal Protection System may be the ticket. Taser International thinks its compact new device will be a Christmas hit with women like Shafman, who's loath to carry a gun but never felt safe enough with the knives or baseball bats she kept by her bed to ward off potential intruders. "We have customers who don't want to look like Dirty Harry," says Tom Smith, chairman and cofounder of Scottsdale-based Taser International, which owns the Taser brand name and is the biggest producer of the "electronic-control weapons." In ads on its Web site, the company features a C2-loving Santa, as well as a self-assured businesswoman on a Manhattan street and the tag line "I will control my own destiny."
Taser International has had trouble controlling its own destiny of late, thanks to a heap of negative publicity about its products. In September, a University of Florida student who disrupted a speech by Sen. John Kerry was caught on camera being subdued by Taser-wielding campus police as he shouted, "Don't Tase me, bro." (For the record, Taser International says "Tase" is not a verb.) In October, a Polish man at Vancouver airport died after he was shocked with a Taser by Royal Canadian Mounted Police. And last month a United Nations committee raised concerns that Taser use "constitut[ed] a form of torture." (Smith calls the torture claim "absurd.") Since 2001, 290 people have died after being shocked with Tasers, according to Amnesty International. The company has been sued 102 times for product liability, with claims of wrongful death or injury, but hasn't lost a case yet (62 have been dismissed by the courts).
Can the C2, with its curvy lines and happy hues, soften the Taser's image? The company, which last year had $68 million in sales, mostly to police and military, says it's pleased with the C2's performance so far—6,900 sold in the third quarter after its July 23 release, with a backlog of 5,900. That's fast growth for a company whose prior consumer model, an intimidating-looking device only Rambo could love, sold just 125,000 units in 10 years. Customers "asked us, could we change the shape to make it less aggressive-looking?" says Smith, who cofounded the company in 1993 with his brother, Rick. "And we found that no matter what the tool is, it's not going to be any good if they are not comfortable using it."
Smith doesn't want people to get too comfortable using it, however (imagine the temptation to Tase that bro whose cell phone goes off in the theater). "We are really emphasizing that this is a serious device," Smith says. "But [incidents] can happen with any tool. So we need to make sure that people know they will be held accountable if they misuse it." The company does a criminal background check via Internet or telephone of all buyers before allowing them to activate the weapon (the right to bear this particular arm doesn't apply to residents of New York, Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Rhode Island or Wisconsin, because of various state and local laws). Each Taser C2 is filled with small pieces of confetti with serial numbers on them that fall out when it's fired so that the owner can be identified. Customers can get a free replacement Taser after they've fired it—but only after filing a police report. Many law-enforcement agencies seem to be taking a hands-off approach for the time being, saying that as long as Tasers are used legally, they have no objections to civilians having them.
For the time being, the C2 doesn't have any direct competition. Although there are other electroshock weapons, most are "stun guns" that require physical contact with a target. That differs from a Taser, which fires an electrified cable that attaches to the target, delivering the shock; the C2 can shoot 15 feet, and some of the police models can reach 30 feet. The only other company that makes a Taser-like device, Tampa, Fla.-based Stinger Systems, has considered introducing its own consumer model, but says it's concerned about the potential for negligence. "As much as Taser wants to sell to the consumer, these are not toys," says Robert Gruder, Stinger's CEO.
In other words, think twice before you stuff someone's stocking with a shiny new Taser. Or you could be in for a shock.