Since then the Deliverator has kept the gun in the glove compartment and relied, instead, on a matched set of samurai swords, which have always been his weapon of choice anyhow. The punks in Gila Highlands weren't afraid of the gun, so the Deliverator was forced to use it. But swords need no demonstration.
-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
Weapons are a constant in human history. It's on the list of things that we seek out as basics, right after shelter, food and clothing. They exist as a means to stop things or people that would hurt us, to keep peace and to serve as a balance against tyranny. As much as the wheel, the kiln and the plow, weapons are a part of what has built civilization.
The problem with them, of course, is what weapons do. They kill and maim things. And this has never been a particularly pleasant fact.
In the twentieth century, many advances were made with weapons that were designed to incapacitate but not kill. The simplest of these were things like rock-salt loads in shotgun shells. Eventually, these were exchanged for bean-bag or rubber rounds and paired with a device that is now common amongst police officers and security forces, the Tazer. In addition, chemical agents like mace and pepper spray have become ubiquitous and easy available.
The research goes on. The US Military has already begun tests with microwave weapons and directed sound energy. Taser International has made strides with it's namesake device, making taser darts that can be launched with a conventional shotgun and even are developing a Taser grenade.
The designers of these devices have the best intentions. A world where peace officers had more non-lethal options than lethal ones would certainly be a better one. A world in which riots could be quelled without bloodshed is preferable to the one we have now. But there is a problem with this path, and one which may not at first appear to be obvious.
All of these weapons are designated "less lethal" or "technically non-lethal" for the reason that in normal usage, they should not kill their targets. Unable to forsee every option, they companies that produce them do point out that in rare cases, injury or death may result. Taser International recently issued an advisory that if their devices were shot at the chest of an assailant and the electric charge from the device were to cross the targets heart, a "cardiac event" could result. In short, tasers could cause someone to have a heart attack.
But the fact that it's possible these weapons might kill someone accidentally is not the problem being discussed here. That issue is related to their usage even if no one gets hurt. Specifically, it's in the fact they are more likely to be used.
A handgun represents a very final threat. If you get shot, the likelihood of you dieing or being permanently injured is pretty high, unless you're in an action movie. A bullet to the chest isn't just unpleasant, it's very potentially lethal. As such, letting a bullet fly is not something a police officer wants to do, perhaps ever. Most officers never discharge their weapons in the line of duty.
Tasers, on the other hand, have fewer long term consequences. This has resulted in officers actually using tasers where they wouldn't draw their gun or baton. Each year, the number of tasings rises. Tasers have been used to subdue dangerous subjects, to be sure, but also to subdue children. They've been used to subdue the elderly. They've been used on already subdued targets.
Tasers get used. And that is the problem.
This trend has caused some concern. Amnesty international has investigated the use of tasers on inmates and prisoners. Police departments have developed specific guidelines to govern when the use of tasers is authorized. But still the numbers go up.
Also, there is the question of how much the average person fears getting hit with a weapon they know isn't going to kill them. Pain is usually a sufficient deterrent, to be sure, but as we develop more sophisticated non-lethal options, pain may not always be part of the equation. What will the deterrent be then?
The quest for the weapon that will end conflicts without a drop of blood being spilled or the smallest of bones being broken is a noble one, but one which gets complicated by the aggressive nature of the human animal. A weapon without lasting consequences is one that requires demonstration to be effective, one whose presence alone does not quell the situation, only it's application. And when the classification is "technically non-lethal", it's only a matter of time before we see just how "technical" that quality is.