Stun guns and Tasers have been widely used by police for some time now, but they’ve also become popular consumer items for self-defense. Most people in the United States are allowed to have stun guns and Tasers, especially in the wake of court decisions finding that these weapons are covered under the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Still, there are often permit requirements and other restrictions on who can buy stun guns and Tasers, where they can be carried, and when they can be used.
Although the rules vary from state to state—and often from city to city—this article explains the general outlines, important court rulings, and how you can find out more information.
There are basically two different types of hand-held devices for consumer use that temporarily stun or incapacitate the target with an electrical charge:
A Stun Gun By Any Other Name
State and local laws may use other terms for electronic incapacitation devices, including electronic stun weapons, electronic control devices, remote stun guns, and electric guns. Some people—and state laws—use the term “stun gun” to apply to both direct-contact and Taser-type devices. Taser is the brand name for the weapons now made by Axon, but it has become the popular term for all similar devices. Stun guns are different from electric cattle prods, which also deliver electric shocks on direct contact but are meant to stimulate movement (or simply cause intense pain when they’re used as torture devices).
For decades after stun guns and Tasers became a consumer product in the 1990s, they didn’t gain much attention from gun-rights advocates and lobbying groups like the National Rifle Association. That meant that in some states and cities, it was easier to carry a handgun than a stun gun.
But that situation is changing rapidly, especially in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision that put into doubt the constitutionality of bans on stun guns and Tasers (Caetano v. Massachusetts, 136 S.Ct. 1027 (2016)). In a brief opinion, the Court dismissed a Massachusetts court’s reasoning that stun guns weren’t protected under the Second Amendment because they were unusual, weren’t in common use when the amendment was enacted, and couldn’t be readily adapted for military use. None of those reasons ruled out Second Amendment protection, said the Caetano court, because they were inconsistent with an earlier Supreme Court decision that found the amendment applied to weapons that weren’t in existence in the 18th century and weren’t useful in warfare (District of Columbia v. Heller, 554 U.S. 570 (2008)).
Although the Caetano court didn’t say outright that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess stun guns, state courts and legislatures have taken the hint. In 2018, the highest court in Massachusetts found that the state’s absolute ban on civilian possession of these weapons, even in one’s own home, violated the Second Amendment (Ramirez v. Commonwealth, 94 N.E.3d 809 (Sup. Jud. Ct. Mass 2018)). Massachusetts now regulates stun guns rather than prohibiting them. Courts in other states have followed suit, including New York. And in Illinois, which allows but regulates these weapons, the state’s highest court has gone even further by striking down a comprehensive ban on carrying stun guns and Tasers in public.
Some states and localities regulate stun guns and/or Tasers directly, with laws and ordinances that refer to them by name or specifically include them in the definition of a firearm for purposes of gun regulations. But in other states, these devices may be covered under general laws that regulate possession, carrying, and use of guns or other weapons. It sometimes takes a decision by an appellate court, or an opinion by a state attorney general, to settle the question of whether stun guns or Tasers are included in various classifications of weapons, including:
State laws and local ordinances—as well as the interpretation of these laws by courts and attorneys general—will determine whether you need a permit to buy a stun gun or Taser, as well as other restrictions on where and how you can carry these weapons (openly or concealed).
Some resources on the Internet claim 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; some of them at least warn users not to rely on the simplified answers they provide. They may also be out of date, as the law in this area is changing rapidly.
You may, however, be able to get more authoritative answers 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.
If you’ve already run into problems with the law connected with your use or possession of a stun gun or Taser, you should speak to a qualified criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible. An attorney who’s experienced in this field should be able to explain how local laws apply to your situation, and how local courts and law enforcement interpret those laws. And if you believe you've been a victim of excessive force as a result of being tasered by police, a lawyer can explain your legal options.
For more information on how certain states regulate stun guns and Tasers, click on the appropriate link below.