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Dan Baum is one of America’s greatest writers. While I disagreed with the pro-gun control editorializing in Gun Guys: A Road Trip  — written in the immediate aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre —  I can’t recommend it enough. Mr. Baum’s vignettes of American gun owners are as vivid as a Lilly Pulitzer print, and a lot easier on the eyes. Dan quit writing — and kept writing (of course). An email journal. Here’s a police-related post that hit my inbox, republished with his permission . . .

The pistol hanging on a police officer’s hip represents a catastrophic failure of technology and imagination. A police officer never needs to kill anybody. What he does need to do, occasionally, is instantly incapacitate a suspect — sometimes several, and sometimes at a distance. But that shouldn’t require killing anybody.

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It would be hard to think of another realm of technology as grievously stalled. People have been incapacitating each other at distance by blowing bits of metal through them since 1288, when someone in China figured out that if you stuffed some of that cool fireworks powder into a metal tube and inserted a metal ball, you could make something pretty interesting.

Europeans imported them, and discovered that that they were good at bringing down enemies wearing suits of armor that were good against broadswords but no match for gunpowder-propelled balls. 

The middle English word for the device was “gonne” — pronounced “gun” — and we’ve essentially been stuck there since then. Guns have gotten better, of course — more accurate, more portable, faster and farther shooting. But we’re still relying on, essentially, a 700-year-old principle to do our fighting.

On the battlefield, sure, you want to kill your enemy. But policemen have no business killing anybody. If the state wants to kill a citizen — and 31 states tragically still do in the form of the death penalty — the process is and should be long and protracted. Yet we give every cop on the beat the equipment to kill a person — many people, actually — and last year, American police officers availed themselves of the opportunity 1,186 times. It’s madness.

What we need is a device that can switch a person off from a distance, and do it reversibly. Tasers aren’t it. They’re too unreliable for situations in which 100-percent reliability is necessary. What we need, essentially, is phasers set to stun.

How hard is that? Phasers, an artifact of Star Trek — are directed-energy weapons that, if turned low, can disorient or knock out a human being instead of cooking him like a steak. If we can master the technology that makes kettle corn so beguilingly salty and sweet, surely we can make a device capable of instantly incapacitating a person at, say, 30 yards, and doing so without causing lasting damage. And even if it does cause a little lasting damage, it has to be less than a 158-grain jacketed hollowpoint crashing through one’s sternum at 1,200 feet per second.

Aside from police officers, imagine if everybody who now keeps a gun for protection knew he would make himself equally safe with a non-lethal device. Sure, such technology would invite such social problems as people using them to incapacitate people they want to rob. But still, we’d be way better off.

I had an editor at Scientific American interested in a story about this, but couldn’t find any brain scientists even thinking about it. The Army has an entire non-lethal weapons program in New Mexico, but it’s mostly devoted to crowd-dispersal technology.

Can it really be true that for situations as common and solemn a police officer drawing his gun, we’re still living in 1288?

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82 Responses to Dan Baum: Why Don’t the Police Have Phasers Set to Stun Yet?

  1. Keep takin’ hits off that bong, sunshine.

    While not a fan of police militarization, I’m also not a fan of them not having the right tools to do the job.

    • So why not arm the cops with Harry Potter wands. A wish and a wave and the bad guy falls down, after all wishful thinking is all he has going for him with this!

    • Very rarely are police in situations that actually require them to be armed to the teeth and those situations are almost always a SWAT style event that they plan in advance. I’m definitely OK with sending cops back to carrying a .38 special revolver and MAYBE a shotgun or bolt action rifle in the car. They’ve shown repeatedly that they can’t be responsible with the more powerful weapons that they currently have, so why do we continue to let them abuse them? Hell, in my ideal situation, any cop that is just writing traffic tickets (so what…90% of the police force?) shouldn’t be carrying a weapon at all because then they’d stop treating the people they pull over (literally highway robbery! but that’s a different topic….) so horribly. Nothing says “This guy doesn’t need a gun” like a cop who walks up to minivan with pregnant mom behind the wheel and having his hand on his gun to threaten and intimidate her.

    • I don’t think the writer is against them having the right tool. I think he is saying we need to invent a better one. I actually agree that for police , not citizens, restrictions to a less than lethal or less lethal weapon wild be great. The problem is one of technology. That weapon only exists in Star Trek.

      I think that the idea that a directed energy weapon , less than lethal without easy to over come counter measures , could be made is likely wishful thinking. This does not mean a better option than a taser could be made available and used much more often than the gun. Police should already be using less lethal options than a fire arm anyway in most cases( and do).

  2. So, he is complaining that no one has invented 1) and energy source that is small and powerful that can be 2) focused into a fictionally envisioned technology that physicists can’t even create a theoretical model of… Get out of fantasy land and welcome to realville. fantasy is what it is. It might inspire new technology but it can’t alter laws of physics or transmogrophy a Space Man Spiff gun. The first energy weapons we develop will be more along a phased plasma pulse laser in the 40 watt range

  3. Interesting but at the same time it is easy to say when you are not the person risking life and limb to back it up.

    Nothing is fool proof not even a gun. It has been proven time and time again.

  4. A directed energy weapon that could disable someone could also inadvertently stop someone’s heart as well, You know, someone like Eric Garner. There is no weapon powerful enough to disable that at the same power level won’t kill.

    • To be fair you’re correct as far as “right now” goes. To be accurate, researchers have known for a while that they can disable/scramble/flip certain parts of the brain, by using magnetic fields. Projecting, and accurately targeting those fields using a man-portable, let alone hand-held device, is decades out.

      http://news.mit.edu/2010/moral-control-0330

      So, theoretically there really could be a “stun ray” that selectively shuts down the brain, save for the autonomic system.

        • There’s nothing even remotely close to a hand-held device that I have even heard rumored. Energy requirements, direction, tech, the usual constraints.

          Neuroscientists have been studying magnetism and brain manipulation for a while, and there’s a growing body of work. It’s the most feasible non-contact way that I’m aware of for potentially putting someone down, with no physical after effects. Or turning a killer sociopath into a temporarily friendly guy who would just love to be handcuffed.

          As noted, decades away.

  5. They should just use Jedi mind tricks.
    You really don’t want to be a criminal. You really want to be on the good side of the force. Run along now.

  6. If we can master the technology that makes kettle corn so beguilingly salty and sweet, surely we can make a device capable of instantly incapacitating a person at, say, 30 yards, and doing so without causing lasting damage.

    If we can build a functional tent, why can’t we teach brain surgery to chimpanzees?

  7. If someone is trying to kill me or mine, I’m going to kill them right back. Stun is not even on the table for discussion.

  8. “A police officer never needs to kill anybody.”

    He’s as wrong as wrong can be. There’s some folks that just need killin’, period.

    • Even a police officer has to “justify” his use of force, especially lethal force. When criminals all agree to use less than lethal force in the commission of their crimes the police should consider doing the same. Until then the Bad Guys all know the risk they are taking and I see absolutely no reason to coddle them.

      Exactly where is the social benefit of incapacitating these miscreants, arresting them, jailing them, providing legal counsel at taxpayer expense, then warehousing them somewhere for years also at taxpayers expense while they file appeals?

      This is just another stupid rant about how if we could only find a kinder, gentler way to deal with those poor misunderstood criminals we could justify confiscating and destroying all those evil guns in civilian hands.

      Molon Labe.

      • I disagree. Cops and citizens are not judge jury and executioner. Nor do I went them/us to be.

        The whole “better to let a guilty man walk than an innocent man imprisoned” still rings true today.

        It’s a founding principle of our judicial system, and one of the reasons being a police officer is a tough gig. It’s also a principle that goes right out the door when my life is threatened and then it’s survival of the “fittest”.

  9. I (non LEO) would totally carry a phaser for self defense. Until those exist, I’ll just carry regular firearms.

    I’m still waiting for hoverboards, flying cars, and fusion reactors. It’s 2016, for crying out loud!

    • Lol in case you think that is far fetched, I’ve actually seen a cop in San Antonio pull that off! Back in the 90’s before they took the “horse d#!cks” away, with god as my witness I’m standing on my porch and these 3 kids run by, cop is chasing them. He yells “STOP GOTDAMIT!” and flings the horsed#!ck. BOOM the fat one goes down… and it turns out he was the one with the car stereo! I just about cheered, like my team won the superbowl or something.

    • One of our local cops pegged a gang banger from across a lawn with his surefire. Dumbass pulled a gun and got two pounds of aluminum to the face in return.

  10. I really hope he was being over the top sarcastic. Otherwise we’d also have to demand warp drive, artificial gravity, and transporters.

    What is the difference between a phaser and a blaster? Is the phaser more advanced? Can we create lightsabers too?

    It is easy to bitch about older concept technology. Our main electricity generation is the same concept that powered the Titanic. Burning coal to create steam to turn the turbine. Nuclear power is now 60 plus years old. Don’t get me started on windmills; they almost go as far back as 1288.

    • You can’t subdue a criminal with magic.
      Magic will make any criminal more likely to commit crimes,
      as those darn cards are just about as addictive as crack.

  11. He lost me at “tragically”. No death penalty in Illinois. And no fear of a just punishment for heinous acts(like executing a 9 year ’cause his daddy is a gang rival)or cutting a baby out of a womb-google Fidel Caffee…

    • I tend to favor the death penalty, for no greater reason than pragmatism. Why pay to keep someone alive who is a premeditated, cold-blooded murderer (murder in the first degree)?

      If not outright executing them, we could simply drop them in a concrete pit or something and let them starve to death.

    • You are apparently not a criminal, because you sure don’t think like one. Criminals are convinced that they won’t get caught, hence they do not fear consequences. The death penalty is only a deterrent to the person caught and convicted of a crime. It does not deter anyone planning on committing a crime. Over the centuries, millions have been executed, but it didn’t do any good then to prevent other crimes, and won’t do any good now. In fact, in England at one point, all felonies were punishable by death, the Old Bailey was festooned with severed heads, and roads in the country were lined with (mostly) men condemned to “hang until dead,” which at the time meant until their rotting bodies fell from the pole on which they had been hanged. When you read literature about the ravens pecking out the eye balls of the dead, this wasn’t hyperbole. If the death penalty actually worked, we’d be living in paradise.

      • The point isn’t that we kill people because we feel like it, or even because we perceive it as “just” or proper revenge. It’s really a matter or pragmatism. If you have a sociopathic killer who has a complete lack of remorse what do you realistically do with him? You can keep him incarcerated for awhile and see if he rehabilitates but honestly if he is a true sociopath the odds of reform are laughably low. So now you incarcerate him for life or execute him.

        Incarceration seems like a good idea but consider that at least some people are going to have to be in proximity to this person and no matter how controlled the environment, he will harm someone if he has the propensity. You have prison staff that have to be around him who have to worry about their safety as well as other offenders who may also be non-violent.

        Ultimately the safest thing to do is execute him. It’s not a pretty comparison but when you have a vicious dog you don’t keep him penned up and then try and release him some-day. You don’t even pen him with your other dogs. You put him down because it’s realistically the only thing you can do.

      • “Criminals are convinced that they won’t get caught, hence they do not fear consequences.”

        If that were true they wouldn’t be carrying guns.

      • Yes, but how many criminals are repeat offenders. If every state had the death penalty it certainly wouldnt be paradise but there would be a whole lot less repeat offenders. Axing a murderer may not deter other murderers but that one def wont be able to commit any others.

  12. Baum is a good writer — not a great writer — and he may be a nice guy, but Star Trek? Really?

    Either he’s pulling one massive leg or he’s off somewhere beyond the seventh sphere of consciousness searching for Klingons.

  13. His point is simply this: the police should not be empowered to be judge, jury and executioner. And as to this, I tend to agree. Obviously it is not always possible for the police to not kill someone, but it should be the goal.

  14. I would say this article is satire along the lines of A Modest Proposal (an elegant solution with plainly ridiculous flaws, be they cannibalism or wildly-fictional technology), but there have been too many idiots seriously arguing for this exact result to date for me to assume he is anything but earnest.

    DIRECTED ENERGY DOES NOT WORK THAT WAY.

    GOODNIGHT!!

  15. How the article should have begun: Hello. I have no background in, knowledge of, or education in Physics, Mathematics, Electrical Engineering, or even General Science, but just let me say….

  16. TOO FUNNY!!!! , this book should get mentioned.
    I have not started to read it yet,
    I came across this book a month ago at a Dollar Tree ( for a buck).
    Saw that Massad Ayoob on the book jacket endorsed it.
    Figured it was worth a buck in BTU’s, if nothing else…………………………

  17. The article is typical writing compliant with the dominant narrative of the progressive left. It rings each of the bells signalling “I’m a sensitive wonderful guy. The world is just so callous.” The death penalty is condemned even for use against a criminal who has imposed it on innocent others. The author’s benign and humane intentions are made manifest in his hopes for a better world. What a wonderful person! Nausea.

  18. Wouldn’t anti-gunners vote to ban phasers right after the first nutcase walks into a phaser-free school wearing steel-toe boots, stuns a half dozen kids and sends ’em on the next life without resistance?

  19. I’ve actually thought about this myself. I don’t see it ever happening to the point where guns lose their utility, even if as a backup.

    “On the battlefield, sure, you want to kill your enemy…”

    Meh. Means to an end. Incapacitating them works plenty well, sometimes better.

  20. The amount of directed energy from a non-projectile source to knock someone over is also enough to cook their insides too. We are talking ionizing radiation that could also induce cancers and/or render someone sterile.

    Pretty harsh for a littering offense.

    The problem with non-lethal devices is that they are often used inappropriately. How many times have tasers been use for “enhanced-interrogation” or ensuring compliance?

    Leave Star-Trek as a pipe dream(*) of progressive utopianism. I prefer the deal with the world as it is, not as I wish it to be.

    (*) Pipe Dream is a reference to deams and ideas that occurred while in a narcotic haze. Historically opium.

  21. Fanciful thinking but impractical as criminals will go heavy well cops armed with their 30 yard Phaser will just be engaged from a greater distance with projectile spewing devices such as a firearm.
    —-
    If everyone had Phasers it sure would separate the men from the boys.
    Knock the person out then knife or bludgeon them to death and free the deceased of their belongings including their Phaser. After all extra power packs come in handy.

    In a perfect world no one would have weapons except even Sci-Fi writers have tackled perfect worlds that ended up having to build or obtain weapons or hire Mercs to protect their perfect world which invariably gets messed up.

    End—

  22. 1) ” A police officer never needs to kill anybody.”
    2) “What he does need to do, occasionally, is instantly incapacitate a suspect — sometimes several, and sometimes at a distance.”

    These two sentences contradict in so many ways that the entire essay seems pointless.

    “occasionally” destroys “never” in the preceding.

    “instantly” qualifies “never” in the preceding. Further, who can be expected to act “instantly,” no matter the tool to be used as a result? The fact that I could operate a mechanism that operates at the speed of light doesn’t negate my decision making ability, my innate reflexes, and any training I might or might not have had.

    “sometimes” is the third and final flag I’m willing to allow the essayist. Now we’re reduced to “sometimes” as opposed to the prior “never.”

    Sorry, too many contradictions in that short of a space makes Danny’s a dull ploy.

  23. You know I wonder if we might have an opportunity here for some innovation. Why not see about building an under barrel tazor or bean bag gun that fits on an under barrel pistol mount? A properly designed system like this could theoretically work as a good less lethal option that would prevent issues like the recent police shooting in Austen. After all the police had to shoot the kid because he was too close to switch weapons safely.

  24. If this is the work of “one of America’s greatest writers”, that’s a scathing indictment of the state of American literature.

  25. Well. I’m going to go against the grain here.

    His premise isn’t entirely insane. He’s right in that the military has been spending a lot of time and money developing non-lethal weapons. We’ve got heat guns and sound guns, blinding lasers and some ultra-sticky goo material that behaves like you’re caught in a giant spider web, plus more I’m not even thinking of. And many are 100% reliable.

    It’s not unreasonable to think that if we can get any of these into a more portable delivery method, we should certainly consider giving them to police.

    I get that a lot of the POTG hate innovation and technology (I’m surprised a lot of you guys even know how to Internet), but developing new technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

    • “I get that a lot of the POTG hate innovation and technology”

      Stealth trolling? If the POTG hate innovation and new technology so much why do the gun reviews have the highest readership. Its not like TTAG is just looking at the same old stuff and writing a new review.

      The POTG are ALWAYS looking for innovation, but to date the best way to send a projectile downrange from a hand held or shoulder fired device is to utilize a controlled explosion in a specialized device. When and if someone comes up with a reliable alternative you can bet TTAG and the POTG will be all over it.

      Bottom line: If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it, but if you can make it work more efficiently, have at it.

    • If a non-lethal weapon can be developed that is reasonably close to a firearm in its ability to incapacitate a determined attacker, then people will flock to it enthusiastically, and for good reason.

      I don’t see this happening any time soon.

  26. Ativan dart gun. Will “stun” anyone cold out in about 5 seconds and will keep them that way for around an hour and when they do wake up they will still have a hard time moving but should not have any side effects.

    • Tranq darts and similar need to be carefully crafted taking the size and metabolism of the target into account, or can cause permanent damage/death as readily as a hot lead injection.

    • I’m glad I read this far down before I posted the same thing. This would instantly be the #1 tool of any established or aspiring rapist or kidnapper. It would definitely teach the bad guys to shoot/phase/stun first. Just wait until defense attorneys present the case that their client used the phaser to guarantee that nobody got hurt making it a lesser crime than a traditional face to face mugging, or ensuring a non-violent rape. After all, the entire point is to make sure nobody gets hurt right?

  27. I don’t know how many here (if any) are Stargate Atlantis fanst, but the main antagonists in that series, the Wraith were a basically a race of space vampires that sucked the lifeforce out of people. As such, they had no use for weapons that killed, because they needed their victims alive in order to eat them. Unlike phasers, there’s no kill setting, and it always knocks people out.

    I was just saying the other day that if we ever developed that technology, a weapon that was guaranteed to incapacitate but not kill, I would carry it. The reason is my legal exposure would be pretty much nil. I would be able to stop the threat with a method that’s established to be non-lethal, not just less lethal, and 100% reliable.

    Of course, that’s just as sci-fi as phasers, so back to guns it is.

  28. Just make sure they have smart phasers only the assigned operator can use which can be remotely disabled if he has a complaint or a TRO.

  29. Can you imagine the internet debates over stopping power if we had phasers?

    On Star Trek, I don’t recall them having 300 lb gangsters hopped up on drugs.

  30. What I read was: “The reality of Physics, which I clearly don’t grasp at all, is so inconvenient. Wah.”

    Might as well be complaining about the lack of unicorns to ride to work on.

    I find this especially dumb: “and 31 states tragically still do in the form of the death penalty”. What else are you going to to when you find a turd in the bowl? You flush it down. You don’t scoop it up and put it in a box with all the other turds you’ve collected.

  31. If the police had phasers, the mothers of the good boys who didn’t do nothing would still riot and sue. That being said, if there were only phasers, would the dozens of people close to the Clintons who have died in apparent suicides or been gunned down gangland style still be alive? Criminals who want to kill, whether in gangs or in government, will find lethal instruments. #HillBilly2016

  32. “What we need is a device that can switch a person off from a distance, and do it reversibly. [] How hard is that?”

    Jeezlus, are we seriously looking for a weapons using Star Trek as a template and asking why they don’t exist?

    It’s fictional that’s why. If anyone thinks we have phasers or should be able to create them, why not ask for a transporter, or warp drive, or a universal translator?

    I’ve got a few ideas I’d like to try out on a holodeck, that’s for certain, involving Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher, but that’s another story.

    • Now that is deliverable in a 5-ish year window.

      Augmented reality is (to my mind) far cooler than VR, and there is a company (in Florida!) that is extremely well-capped, doing some amazing stuff with it right now. The vanguard is always pr0n, so l think you may have your wish fulfilled quicker than you think.

  33. When are you going to finally change the name of this blog to The Truth About Libertarianism? It’s barely about guns anymore and all about product placement and political crap.

  34. HA! No one is thinking about it because a “magical make people fall down gun” isn’t physically possible. Tasers are pretty close in that they attempt to disrupt your nervous system. But they don’t count because… uh. Well he didn’t say, but they don’t count, okay!

    Sheesh. We could try gassing people? What could go wrong there? Or net guns? Surely net guns will work. Oh wait, people can still shoot you through a net.

    Man it’s almost like what he wants isn’t possible? But wait! We make delicious treats. Surely we can make an incapacitator. Maybe we can just poison the delicious treats. :p

  35. “If the state wants to kill a citizen…the process is and should be long and protracted. ”
    What a sadistic bastard!
    Anyway, I disagree with his basic premise. There are people who need to be killed.

  36. Has anybody really projected the consequences of a social policy where criminals committing capital crimes could be confident that sudden death would never be one of the risks?

    Somehow, I don’t think a society offering infinite “do overs” to criminals would be an improvement.

  37. Ok, I’ve got this. We don’t want to stun them so that they fall down and crack their skull open. So, what we need is a “Tired” gun. We identify the part of the brain that experiences intense fatigue and then beam their brain that signal so that they suddenly feel an overwhelming urge to lie down and sleep. So, easy peasy.

  38. It’s hard to take an article like this seriously. It really is. “But policemen have no business killing anybody.” Okay, then tell me how else we (I am one, BTW) we are supposed to stop homicidal criminals from killing us or the innocent citizens we are supposed to protect. Your best answer to that challenge is to tell me that we’re supposed to have Star Trek phasers by by now? Seriously?

    Okay, then suppose you enlighten me as to how one is supposed to work. Suppose you tell me what we can devise that will reliably incapacitate an aggressive, muscular, 6 foot three, 220 pound young man on PCP, and yet not kill a much smaller, middle-aged, out of shape, mental patient with a knife, when the officer has MAYBE one to two seconds to deploy the weapon and adjust its settings — and he probably pays with his life if he gets the adjustments wrong and the weapon fails to work. Go ahead. I’m waiting. I’m all ears.

    There is a reason these kinds of weapons are confined to shows with other handwavium bits of fantasy “technology” like faster than light starships, forcefields, and artificial gravity: they’re FANTASY. There is no scientific basis on which they can operate. We don’t even have the beginnings of a theory about how to accomplish something like this. The human body is an incredibly complex and intricate thing, and coming up with something that will instantly incapacitate people of widely varying sizes, ages, states of health, etc., yet not do permanent damage, is not nearly as easy to achieve as it is to fantasize about.

    In case you missed it, I have NO patience whatever with airy, ivory tower pronouncements about what things SHOULD be like, and blanket condemnations because they aren’t. It’s ridiculous to hold people to an ideal that has never existed and condemn them, however indirectly, for failing to live up to it; and that’s precisely what you are doing when you make sweeping statements like “policemen have no business killing anybody.” I’ll stipulate that IF a way existed to reliably, instantaneously incapacitate ANY suspect without killing him/her existed, that statement might apply. But since no such way exists, or can be made to exist given the current limits of our knowledge, it’s a ridiculous expression of wishful thinking. Here in the real world, we have to accept the imperfect conditions that exist, and operate within the constraints imposed by science and the realities of human physiology. Those constraint don’t always leave us with comfortable options. And policemen who have to cope with the trauma of having taken a life have a hard enough time doing so as it is, without being made to feel as though they have behaved immorally by doing something they are never supposed to do — according to some Monday morning quarterback who has never had to do it.

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