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Demand High for Cockpit 'Ray Guns' - 2002-05-01

In a suburban office park outside Phoenix, dozens of workers are fashioning high tech stun guns for the airline industry. Known as Tasers, these non-lethal weapons have been in high demand in recent months for police and security officials. Now, the Federal Aviation Administration is taking a serious look at them for use by airline pilots. Not surprisingly, the company making the Taser has had a hard time keeping up with demand.

Ray guns are something you'd expect to see in an early science fiction movie, not in the cockpit of an airplane. Complete with a computer interface port and gleaming red laser beam for targeting, Tasers look like handguns, but fire 50,000 piercing volts of electricity every time the trigger is pulled. Taser International CEO Rick Smith takes aim at a metal replica of a human torso hanging on the wall.

"We've used compressed nitrogen to fire two small wires out to a distance of [6.5 meters]," he explained. "We then transmit electrical energy through those wires and into the body of the subject, basically paralyzing him."

Rick Smith co-founded Taser International with his brother Tom in 1993. It's currently the largest manufacturer of stun guns in the nation. But when the company started, law enforcement officials didn't really consider stun guns legitimate weapons and the company's financial picture reflected that.

"For the first six or seven years we were at this, there were only two months where, on the first day of the month, we knew we had payroll covered on the 30th day of the month," recalled Mr. Smith.

During the other 82 months, Mr. Smith says, there were a lot of sleepless nights. But non-lethal weapons like the stun gun have become more popular in recent years, especially among police officers who say that in large crowds or public places, it's getting more difficult to tell the difference between an innocent bystander and a potential security threat.

"You can use it without being 100 percent sure. Whereas lethal force, obviously if you make a mistake and you shoot the tourist, there is a much greater...problem," he said.

Eleven-hundred law enforcement agencies in the United States and Canada have ordered Taser stun guns over the last 2 years. In October, United Airlines decided to place stun guns in its cockpits, in anticipation of Federal Aviation Administration approval. Taser says it has commitments from seven other air carriers as well. Since September, orders have risen 167 percent.

In Taser's small factory, the people assembling the stun guns are scrambling to keep up. Tom Smith says the company is producing 2,500 Tasers a month, two-and-a-half times more than they were making a year ago. "We've increased our personnel by almost 70 percent just to be able to keep up with the demand and the growth we've experienced in the last 12 to 18 months," said Mr. Smith.

Needing to increase its employee base on short notice, Taser turned to local church groups, which had brought war refugees from Serbia to new homes in Arizona. Here, the company found a ready workforce, willing to work for minimum wage.

Heads down, and fingers busy, they sit at six tidy workbenches, constructing the stun guns from scratch, assembly-line style, until they're ready to ship to 60 countries. Sonia, 22, who has been in this country for just over a year, is a team leader, and enjoys the pace of the work, but admits "I'm really busy."

She and her team will likely stay busy. According to a recent poll, 80 percent of commercial pilots in the United States would like to have a handgun in the cockpit. However, airline officials strongly oppose that idea, fearing a skyjacker could get hold of the weapon, or that a bullet could damage the plane's structural integrity. But Tasers could be an acceptable compromise. United Airlines is currently training its 9,500 pilots to use them. FAA approval of stun guns is expected in coming months.