Today's example: tasers. I'm a fan of John Sandford's books so have been going back and trying to read the books in his "Prey" series that I missed when they were first published. The one I just finished, Silent Prey, came out in 1992. Having the characters depend on land lines and pay phones didn't feel too odd. What stood out was the introduction of a taser into the action -- and it was still so new that no one was calling it a taser. It was a "stun gun." The cops are trying to figure out just how the psychotic serial killer is overcoming his victims, but it's not until about the 6th body that someone notices the burn marks from a "stun gun" on a victim's neck.
After reading about the cops in the book talking about "stun guns" and what a novelty they were, I started trying to remember when I first saw one. I can remember a time when suddenly everyone was talking about how they were the thing to get for self-defense, I just can't remember when that time was. Had to be sometime in the '90s, but I can't recall if it was during my Virginia Tech days or shortly after. I do know that when someone did the heart-to-heart just-between-us-gals talk about the need to carry one for self defense, I declined. I know me. I figured out a long time ago that anything I carry for self-defense is far more likely to be snatched from my fumbling fingers and used against me than it is to deter a mugger or a rapist. If I were dumb enough to spend real money on a taser or a hand gun or even some cheap pepper spray, the low life harassing me would have no difficulty snatching my self-defense weapon up from where I'd managed to drop it in the process of trying to get it out of my pocket or purse. And if by some minor miracle I managed to actually hang on to the device, odds are I'd shoot or shock or gas myself before I did any damage to an assailant.
Come to think of it, I guess I could wonder about just when pepper spray became common, too, because it does seem to go hand-in-hand with the taser. In my memory, both seem to pop up around the same time, the early to mid-90s. Which, now that I think about, correlates with the racist paranoia that popped up during the first Bush administration about "super predators" and amoral urban youth terrorizing the rest of us. So which came first, I wonder? The market niche (hyper-paranoid white people) or the tasers and pepper sprays?
I have actually carried something for self-defense, but it didn't fit in my purse or briefcase. I was moderately paranoid when I lived in Washington, D.C., when I first got there so I did what a number of self-defense experts suggested: I carried a large umbrella, something big enough that it was real clear it could function as a club if necessary, and I tried to walk like I knew exactly where I was going. If you don't look like an easy target, you're less likely to be targeted. Of course, whether or not I would have been capable of flailing away at a mugger's head with the umbrella is debatable. More likely I would have done the sensible thing and just handed over my bag. Maybe. If anyone had tried snatching the briefcase with my dissertation research notes in it, serious violence might have ensued.
A small digression: during my time in D.C., two people I knew personally were mugged. One was a friend who was on her way to 7-11 to buy donuts at about 7 in the morning. She said she was really torn by the incident: she was mad as hell that she missed out on the donuts she was looking forward to but at the same time impressed by the mugger's work ethic. After all, no one expects street crime to happen just as the sun's coming up. The other one was a guy, someone I knew through the Smithsonian, who got mugged in the DuPont Circle area when he came up from the Metro. In his case, it was fairly early in the evening but still late enough that the big commuting rush was over and there weren't many people around. He definitely didn't fit the profile for a mugging victim (he was a physically fit young male) but he told us he was distracted, trying to figure out which way to go to get to a party he'd been invited to, and looking lost can cause giant neon signs saying VICTIM in flashing letters to appear over your head. (And it just hit me: all those people wandering around staring down at their smart phones instead of paying attention to their surroundings must be a purse snatcher's idea of heaven. . . which gives me yet another reason to avoid ever owning one myself.)