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Hey, Beacon Hill: Stun guns are too lethal to ignore

Stoughton police officer Brian Smith demonstrates a Taser. GEORGE RIZER FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

In the already heated battle over gun control, the state's highest court has dropped one giant hot potato on the Legislature's doorstep — even as lawmakers are looking toward a midsummer end to the session.

The Supreme Judicial Court, following some rather pointed instructions from the US Supreme Court, recently overturned the state's ban on civilian use of stun guns — Tasers and weapons that use an electrical current or beam "designed to incapacitate temporarily, injure, or kill."

So, yes, we're talking about some serious firepower — in the wrong hands. But who is to say what the wrong hands are? Well, the SJC gave the Massachusetts Legislature exactly 60 days (the clock started ticking on the date of the unanimous decision issued on April 17) to figure that out.


The possibility of not meeting that deadline is unthinkable.

"Having received guidance from the Supreme Court," the opinion written by Chief Justice Ralph Gants pointedly noted, "we now conclude that stun guns are 'arms' within the protection of the Second Amendment.

". . . Restrictions may be placed on the categories of persons who may possess them, licenses may be required for their possession, and those licensed to possess them may be barred from carrying them in sensitive places, such as schools and government buildings. But the absolute prohibition. . . is inconsistent with the Second Amendment," he wrote.

The chief justice provided a good first draft of the direction the Legislature can and must take — and soon.

For years women (and, yes, far more often than not it was women) had to deal with the lengthy process required simply to possess a can of mace for self-defense. It meant applying for a Class B Firearms Identification Card from the local police department, being fingerprinted, and providing references. Surely, possessing a stun gun ought to be at least that rigorous — and probably more so.


In fact, there was a world of difference between the two Massachusetts cases that generated all this legal wrangling. The first — known in court at Caetano I — involved a woman who told police she got the stun gun to protect herself from a former boyfriend. The second case — Caetano II — involved a man arrested by Revere police with a stun gun in his pocket but also a loaded firearm under the seat of the car searched by police.

In fact, the court noted that "the Legislature was so concerned with the risk of their misuse that, in 1986, it initially barred all individuals, including law enforcement officers, from possessing electrical weapons." It wasn't until 2004 that the law was changed to permit police to use the stun guns.

Law enforcement has made use of the weapons to save lives; the history of their misuse by civilians has been quite the opposite, as the court points out. They have been used to "incapacitate a victim before killing him by strangulation," as a weapon by would-be rapists, and "to punish and control victims of domestic violence."

Even the leading manufacturer of such weapons, Axon Enterpise (formerly TASER International) concedes they "are often used in aggressive confrontations that may result in serious, permanent bodily injury or death. . . ."

The licensing process must reflect that potential lethality. This isn't a can of mace or pepper spray. It also ought to focus legislative minds on how essential it is to simply get this done — before the clock runs down.