A stun gun is a device designed to stun or immobilize an attacker by administering an electric shock. When a stun gun is activated (usually by pulling a trigger), electricity passes between two metal prongs at the end of the weapon. Touching these electrified prongs against an attacker causes sharp pain.
A Taser is a pistol-type device that shoots a pair of wires tipped with small darts towards the target. The wires carry an electric charge; when the darts hit their target, a shock is delivered as the electric circuit is completed. Original Tasers used gunpowder to propel the darts, but because this delivery device resulted in placing the Taser within laws that regulate conventional firearms, Taser changed the delivery system to use compressed nitrogen instead. But as you will see, this does not mean that stun guns and Tasers cannot still be regulated as a weapon. Stun guns and Tasers thereafter became a consumer product, beginning in the 1990s.
Stun guns deliver a painful electric shock to the target at the point of contact. This causes the attacker to jerk away involuntarily from the stun gun. However, stun guns do not immobilize the attacker.
Tasers deliver a shock to the target’s muscles, temporarily disabling him. They usually stop the target with one blow or delivery; they are easy to use, and do not require close contact (their range is about fifteen feet). Fatalities resulting from Taser use are very rare. It is generally acknowledged that these devices are "nonlethal" and are used primarily for self-defense.
Will Stun Guns Replace Firearms?
Taser sees its product as part of a natural evolution of firearms, predicting that "at some point it's going to seem as archaic to shoot somebody with a gun to resolve a dispute as it is to use a samurai sword today. And that really is our mission." (Doug Klint, President and General Counsel, Taser International, Inc., San Francisco Daily Journal, March 6, 2014.) Another mission is to never settle lawsuits (in civil cases brought by people who claim the police used excessive force when firing their Taser, the company regularly gets sued as well). The company will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend a case that could have settled for a few thousand. The devices have been sold to over 17,000 police agencies in the United States.
The legality of owning and carrying a stun gun or Taser will depend on state law and, in many states, local ordinances as well. When looked at as a whole, however, it’s generally easier to own, carry, and use a firearm in the United States than it is to do the same with a stun gun, whose capacity to injure and kill is vastly less than that of a firearm. Why is this so?
The short answer is that there is no National Rifle Association for stun gun owners: No well-funded and politically powerful lobby protects the rights of stun gun owners to possess and use their devices; no one seriously uses the devices to hunt, and there are no emotional, historical, or familial arguments to be made in favor of stun gun owners’ rights (when was the last time you heard someone argue for the right to use his grandfather’s antique stun gun?). By contrast to many gun owners, stun gun owners and would-be owners tend to be relatively mild—they’re the people who want a defensive weapon only, not an offensive one; they may have moral qualms about using a deadly weapon, even in self-defense; and they may not want to take the chance that a gun, purchased only for self-defense, will fall into the wrong hands and result in a suicide or an accident. These folks do not have a lobby; consequently, legislative efforts to regulate stun guns do not result in public attention and hostility.
A few states have even outlawed the possession of stun guns and Tasers. See What states ban the use and possession of stun guns? for more information.
Some states and localities regulate stun guns and Tasers directly, with laws and ordinances that explicitly refer to them by name. But in other states, these devices are covered under the states’ general laws on gun permits and open and concealed carry laws. These states regulate “weapons,” “defensive weapons,” “offensive weapons,” “deadly or dangerous weapons,” or “dangerous instruments.” It sometimes takes a decision by an appellate court, or an opinion by a state Attorney General, to settle whether a stun gun or Taser belongs within these various classifications.
Here are some of the ways that stun gun and Taser ownership may be regulated, when the state has not directly legislated on the subject.
Weapons and defensive weapons. States whose regulations refer to “any weapon” will usually apply to stun guns and Tasers.
Projectile devices. Some regulations apply to devices that fire a projectile device, which covers Tasers but not stun guns.
Death, serious injury, or extreme pain. Some statutes regulate devices that can cause these injuries. In many states that define dangerous weapons as causing extreme pain, stun guns and Tasers will be included.
Weapons readily capable of causing death or serious injury. Stun guns and Tasers rarely result in death or serious injury, but juries may find differently.
Weapons capable or readily capable of causing death. Again, though stun guns and Tasers rarely cause death, some opinions of state attorneys general have concluded otherwise, and place stun guns and Tasers within this category.
Weapons likely to cause death or serious bodily injury. In some states, stun guns and Tasers are placed within this group, despite evidence to the contrary.
Unspecified dangerous weapons, deadly weapons, or offensive weapons. Many states place stun guns and Tasers within these groups.
Electronic Incapacitation Devices
A few states recognize the difference between stun guns and Tasers and have distinct regulations for each device. For example, Indiana has three categories of electronic incapacitation devices, separated by shock capacity and delivery mechanism: stun gun, electronic stun weapon, and taser. Electronic stun weapons and Tasers require a handgun license to carry in public. However, because stun guns have a lower shock capacity and do not use a projectile, a permit is not required to carry a stun gun public.
As you have seen, whether you need a permit for a stun gun or Taser, and whether (and where) you may carry one (openly or concealed), will depend on state and local law, and often on how your state’s judges and attorney general have placed the stun gun or Taser within the scheme of regulated weapons. To make matters more complicated, scores of American cities have enacted their own ordinances.
Some resources on the Internet purport to provide comprehensive, 50-state answers to the question of permissible ownership and use. These sites are generally commercial operations that also sell the devices, and are at least careful to warn users not to rely on the simplified answers they provide.
You may, however, be able to answer this question by simply contacting your local law enforcement office, or by going online and accessing the state website run by the agency that administers gun permits.
Read more on concealed carry weapon laws.
For information on how your state regulates stun guns, consult the chart below. For in-depth information, click the link to your state.
District of Columbia