Deborah Kerr in The King and I recommended whistling a happy tune when afraid, but now fearful Americans can sing along to their favourite tracks while shooting anyone who causes them consternation with a 50,000-volt electric charge.
The annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, which is expected to receive more than 140,000 visitors this week, is no stranger to bizarre gadgets but the iTaser - as it has been dubbed - must rank as one of the oddest. It combines a Taser stun gun, used by 12,000 law enforcement and security forces, including the Metropolitan police, with an MP3 player and earphones.
As to which tracks anyone toting such a device might download on to the 1GB player that is integrated into the gun's holster, anything by Sparks or Frank Zappa must be fairly high on the list.
Arizona-based Taser International sells the handheld stun guns under the rather hyperbolic banner of "Changing the World and Protecting Lives". It maintains that the iTaser "allows for both personal protection and personal music for people on the go".
According to Rick Smith, founder of the company, "personal protection can be both fashionable and functionable".
The company says the new device is particularly aimed at women - with red, pink and even leopard print designs intended to make carrying a stun gun fashionable. A spokesman in Las Vegas said the inclusion of a music player would encourage purchases by women who want a form of self defence while out jogging, but would otherwise choose to take an iPod or other MP3 player with them instead of a weapon.
"A lot of women aren't going to go into a gun store and feel comfortable enough buying a Taser, so now we have some outdoor companies and dealers - some cellphone places are starting to carry them and hang them next to phones," he said.
Half a million Tasers are already in use globally despite warnings from Amnesty International that they have been linked to more than 70 deaths in the US. According to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation a further 18 people have died after being stunned by a Taser in Canada.
Taser International, however, maintains that the devices merely stun people and, with proper training, are otherwise harmless. The guns shoot two small probes, at speeds of more than 48 metres a second, which are connected to the device by insulated wire. Those probes deliver an electric charge that causes instant neuro-muscular incapacitation, causing the victim to crumple to the floor. They also lose the ability to move for a few seconds.
The gun generates a staggering 50,000 volts but the actual ampage - which is potentially very dangerous to life - is a mere 0.0021 amps, while a household plug carries 13 amps. The ampage is so low that the Taser's two lithium camera batteries can stun 100,000 people, but used in a digital camera they would provide just 100 photo flashes.
Being hit by a stun gun is, however, a deeply unpleasant experience. Last month a 45-year-old company director, who later proved to be unarmed and innocent, claimed he had been "Tasered" in north London. The first shock caused him to drop to his knees, while a second left him flat on his face with a broken tooth and a further six shocks made him wet himself. The Independent Police Complaints Commission has started an investigation into the incident.
Daniel Sylvester, the owner of an east London security firm employing 65 staff to guard council offices, pubs and nightclubs, described the sensation as "like being tortured".
Ten police forces in England and Wales are using Tasers. Forces from Devon and Cornwall to north Wales and Northumbria have issued the stun guns to previously unarmed officers.
The Met, for instance, started handing out the devices in early December to members of its territorial support group after training at a specialist centre in Gravesend, Kent. It has pledged that only six officers will be carrying them at any one time in the capital.
Asked whether they will be allowed to listen to their favourite tunes while on the beat, or perhaps download the latest police training manuals into their holsters and plug in, a Met spokesman was derisory: "I can honestly say no, we won't be using it. Do you think that would be a good use of public money?"
The British public are banned from using Tasers but they are legal in 43 US states where Taser International has already sold 160,000 to private citizens. The American government does not consider Tasers to be firearms.
The system does include some safeguards to try to prevent unlawful use, including owner registration and a trace of tiny, uniquely identifiable computer chips left at the scene of a shooting.
© 2007 The Guardian