What if I accidentally zapped someone with my stun gun?

The inside of a basic stun gun. See more pictures of guns and weapons.

On the old "Star Trek" series, Captain Kirk and his crew never left the ship without their trusty phasers. One of the coolest things about these weapons was the stun setting.

We're still a ways off from this futuristic weaponry, but millions of police officers, soldiers and ordinary citizens do carry real-life stun weapons to protect against personal attacks.

We tend to think of electricity as a harmful force to our bodies. If lightning strikes you or you stick your finger in an electrical outlet, the current can maim or even kill you. But in smaller doses, electricity is harmless. In fact, it's one of the most essential elements in your body. You need electricity to do just about anything.

When you want to make a sandwich, for example, your brain sends electricity down a nerve cell, toward the muscles in your arm. The electrical signal tells the nerve cell to release a neurotransmitter, which is a communication chemical, to the muscle cells. Neurotransmitters tell the muscles to contract or expand in just the right way to put your sandwich together. When you pick up the sandwich, the sensitive nerve cells in your hand send an electrical message to the brain, telling you what the sandwich feels like. When you bite into it, your mouth sends signals to your brain telling you how it tastes.

­In this way, the different parts of your body use electricity to communicate with one another. This is actually a lot like a telephone system or the Internet. Specific patterns of electricity are transmitted to deliver recognizable messages.

See the next page to learn more about how a stun gun confuses the nervous system.

Stun Guns and the Nervous System

A stun gun's effectiveness can depend on the model, the size of the person being zapped and the duration of the actual zap.
A stun gun's effectiveness can depend on the model, the size of the person being zapped and the duration of the actual zap.

The basic idea of a stun gun is to disrupt the nerve communication system. Stun guns generate a high-voltage, low-amperage electrical charge. In simple terms, this means that the charge has a lot of pressure behind it, but not that much intensity. When you press the stun gun against someone and hold the trigger, the charge passes into that person's body. Since it has a fairly high voltage, the charge will pass through heavy clothing and skin. But at around 3 milliamps, the charge is not intense enough to damage the person's body unless it is applied for extended periods of time.

The charge does dump a lot of confusing information into the person's nervous system, however. The charge combines with the electrical signals from the person's brain. This is like running an outside current into a phone line: The original signal is mixed in with random noise, making it very difficult to decipher any messages. With the stun gun generating a ton of "noise," the person has a very hard time telling his or her muscles to move, and he or she may become confused and unbalanced. He or she is partially paralyzed, temporarily.

The current may be generated with a pulse frequency that mimics the body's own electrical signals. In this case, the current will tell the person's muscles to do a great deal of work in a short amount of time. The action in the muscles is actually happening at a cellular level, so you couldn't really see the person twitching or shaking -- the signal doesn't direct the work toward any particular movement. The work doesn't do anything but deplete the person's energy reserves, leaving him or her too weak to move (which is the whole idea as you would normally be using a stun gun against an attacker).

A stun gun's effectiveness can vary depending on the particular gun model, the size of the person being zapped and the duration of the actual zap. If you use the gun for half a second, a painful jolt will startle the person. If you zap him or her for one or two seconds, he or she should experience muscle spasms and become dazed. And if you zap him or her for more than three seconds, he or she will become unbalanced and disoriented and may lose muscle control. However, determination can be a mitigating factor. Determined attackers with a certain physiology may keep coming despite any shock.

For more information on stun guns, electricity and related topics, see the links on the next page.

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