Stun Gun Fatalities Rise

M-26 Advanced Taser held in hand, graphic element on black, 11-15-01

It sounds like a jackhammer and strikes like lightning. The Taser is an electric stun gun that fires laser-guided fishooks from 20 feet away, packing 50,000 volts of stopping power. Across the country, cops call the Taser, "the revolution."

Asked what he thinks of it, an officer says, "I love it."

"It stops officers from having to go hands-on and fight with suspects," says Sgt. Lauri Williams.

Williams says the Taser reduces deadly force because police no longer draw their guns on suspects with bricks or knives. In Phoenix last year, gun shootings by police went down by half, and fatal shootings dropped by a third.

In fact, as CBS News Correspondent Wyatt Andrews reports, almost every police agency using Taser reports fewer shootings, fewer deaths, fewer injuries.

"To go out there and have this tool that doesn't cause injuries at all to the suspects, it's really just a great thing," says Williams.

When police are trained on Tasers, they are taught the stun gun is safe to use in any circumstance and that the weapon immobilizes but does not injure.

"Instead of causing pain or injury, we are like a remote control plugged into your body, telling your body not to move," says Rick Smith, Taser International CEO.

Thanks to its reputation there is a 12-week backlog in demand.

"We can't keep up with demand," says Smith.

He says 4,300 agencies have ordered it.

For Smith, sales and profits are skyrocketing. But so is another statistic: Taser-related deaths.

A CBS news investigation, confirmed by the company, shows some 40 people have died after being stunned. The company says the Taser is not to blame, because most of the victims were fighting with police, delirious or on drugs.

"If the Taser had not been used, all 40 of those people would still be dead today," says Smith. "In every single case these people would have died anyway."

And now some of the victims' families have begun to question why Taser is so certain the weapon never kills.

The sister of one man killed by a Taser challenges the company's assertion that the person was going to die anyway.

"There's no way to know that," says Shelly Leyba.

In part 2 of the series: Could "the revolution" have a fatal flaw?