PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A federal lawsuit is seeking to make it legal to use electronic weapons like stun guns and Tasers in Rhode Island.
The suit, filed Friday at U.S. District Court in Providence, is being brought by two Rhode Island residents who say they want to purchase a stun gun or Taser for personal safety, but are prohibited by state law from doing so. The suit names Attorney General Peter Neronha and R.I. State Police Col. James Manni as defendants in their roles enforcing the laws in Rhode Island.
Stun guns are defined as handheld electronic weapons that require direct contact with a person, sending a powerful shock to momentarily incapacitate the individual. A Taser, which is the commercial name of the device manufactured by Axon, fires two wired barbed darts of between 15 and 30 feet that attach to the skin of a target.
“Electrical energy is sent over the wires into the probes,” the lawsuit states. “The charge is transmitted between the two probes and is designed to disrupt the sensory and motor functions to inhibit muscular control of an attacker.”
A web search shows similar laws banning the possession of electronic weapons have been struck down in recent years across the country.
Rhode Island is one of two states that currently bans the possession of electronic weapons, according to Frank Saccoccio, a lawyer who represents the plaintiffs and is also the president of the Rhode Island Second Amendment Coalition. (The other state with a ban is Hawaii.)
The plaintiffs in the suit are Michael O’Neil, the vice president of the Second Amendment Coalition, and Nicola Grasso, the former president of the Rhode Island Federated Sportsman’s Association.
“Grasso currently wishes to purchase a stun gun or Taser for lawful self-defense and does not solely due to law,” the complaint says.
The suit looks to strike down the statute as unconstitutional under the Second Amendment.
Saccoccio said his organization proposed legislation last year that would have legalized the possession of stun guns and Tasers in Rhode Island, but the bill failed after a disagreement over the degree of punishment a person would receive if someone used the device on a police officer.
Sid Wordell, executive director of the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association, said his group understands Rhode Island’s ban makes the state an outlier and “we are going to have to legalize them.”
Wordell said members of his group want to make sure whatever changes are made to the law would require that there is a permitting process as well as restrictions on who can possess a stun gun.
Providence Public Safety Commissioner acknowledged the possession of electronic weapons are protected by the constitution but said, “as a government we should be real restrictive with the persons who can carry these types of devices and where they can can carry.”
“I wouldn’t want to see someone carrying a stun gun which can incapacitate people in banks and government buildings and sensitive areas,” he said.
Kristy dosReis, a spokesperson for Attorney General Peter Neronha declined to comment because of the ongoing litigation.
Tim White (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook