Myth #2a - "Chemical sprays and stun guns are just as effective"

Myth #2a - "Chemical sprays and stun guns are just as effective."

Unfortunately, even shooting an attacker doesn't always stop them immediately, unless the shot is directed at the central nervous system. A fatally wounded assailant can still be dangerous for the few seconds or minutes they have left. Non-lethal methods, while they can be effective in some cases and can provide an additional option for personal defense, are not something you want to bet your life on when confronted with deadly force. The chemical sprays available to civilians (such as CS tear gas, or OC pepper spray) are not always as strong as those used by law enforcement, but even though the police carry chemical agents, they also carry firearms, since even the police sprays (like FREEZE+P) don't stop everybody, and aren't appropriate for every situation. The chemical sprays are most effective when they can reach the mucous membranes, such as when sprayed in the eyes or inhaled. Yet if an attacker is wearing glasses, or holds their breath, or is on drugs, or is just unusually impervious to the pain, the spray may not be effective. (After all, some people can_eat_extraordinarily hot peppers, and some people just have high pain thresholds.)

Chemical sprays are designed for outdoor use, and will persist and can cause problems for the defender if used indoors. Outdoors, they can be affected by the direction of the wind, and blown off target, or back into the defender's face, if not delivered in a stream. Inclement weather can also affect their effectiveness as a defense, and they require a few seconds to fully incapacitate when they work. It should be noted that pepper sprays are more effective against dogs than man, since dogs expose their mouth and tongue when threatening attack, but chemical mace (CS tear gas) is not effective against dogs, since dogs' tear glands are less active, and they have smaller tear ducts, limiting the spray's effects. Use of OC sprays on non-human animals may require the highest concentration of pepper, i.e. 10%-13%, since it is believed that dogs, for example, are less sensitive to the pain. Many sprays contain visible or invisible dyes which are useful in identifying and apprehending a suspect, but if the victim ends up wounded or dead due to the essentially random chance that the spray is ineffective as a defense, that's a fact of interest primarily to the police. Criminals can be equally and more indelibly marked for capture by the use of a firearm, if use of deadly force is justified, since their wounds often require that they seek medical attention. Medical personnel are required to report patients seeking treatment for gunshot wounds to law enforcement authorities.

Most stun "guns" available for civilian use require direct contact with the attacker's body, putting the victim dangerously in harm's way, when the objective is to keep as far away as possible. Many civilian stun guns are also underpowered, and can require several seconds contact with the attacker in order to incapacitate. They may also have difficulty penetrating heavy clothing, like winter coats. Their loud crackle and brilliant blue arc are certainly intimidating, however. Other stun guns (like the police TASER, and its civilian cousin, the Air Taser) can fire electrode darts with trailing wires into the target from a distance. The civilian version of the TASER, approved for sale as a "non-firearm" by the BATF in June 1994, uses compressed nitrogen to expel its electrode barbs, unlike the police version, which uses an explosive propellant and is regulated under the NFA (see National Firearms Act, Appendix I). Most stun guns are now equipped with safety devices designed to prevent them from being used against the defender if taken away. Criminal misuse of contact-type stun "guns" as torture devices has occurred, so this is a significant concern for stun gun users. The civilian TASER includes a weapon registration system which dispenses dozens of serial numbered microdots with each use, so as to deter criminal use of the weapon. However, as with any registration system, theft of the weapon or cartridges from their rightful owner could occur. The civilian TASER also doubles as a contact-type stun "gun" for use if the darts miss their target, or if there is no time to reload the dart cartridge system during an assault by multiple attackers.

Another variety of stun "gun" is under development which squirts a stream of liquid electrolyte at the target, rather than using a wire to deliver its current. Like a TASER, it has limited range, but it could provide for a multi-shot capacity that current wire- launching stun "guns" lack. Still, it seems unlikely that carrying around a liquid electrolyte reservoir will do much to reduce the weapon's size or weight. Unfortunately, there is no "Star Trek" style weapon that can reliably and safely "stun" a person without some risk, however small, of lethality. People vary in their biochemical and physiological responses to various weapons, and the level of force which may be required to "stun" a person whose strength and stamina has been abnormally enhanced by drugs could prove lethal to some ordinary people. Persons who already suffer from significant stresses to their heart or other organs can die from the additional stresses of what would otherwise be a "less than lethal" weapon, particularly if such weapons are misused. But if sufficient force is not used in defending against a life-threatening attack, the defender runs the risk of injury or death.

Even police stun "guns" don't always work, as evidenced by the 1991 Rodney King video. King was TASERed prior to being attacked by baton-wielding officers but was still able to move around and present a potential threat. (Some of the fired darts may have missed, but had he been incapacitated by the TASER, the baton attack would have been even more obviously excessive, and unnecessary.)

Both chemical sprays and stun guns are virtually useless in stopping multiple attackers, while with sufficient practice, firearms (and particularly handguns) are quite effective at stopping violent attack, even by a determined gang of assailants. Unlike these two common non-lethal weapons, a gun, when fired, acts to alert possible aid, and is less likely to be ignored than personal alarms. Also, unlike non-lethal weapons, guns offer an additional intimidation factor due to their lethality which may deter attack in circumstances where the risk of confronting a spray can or stun "gun" would not. Ironically, many of the same localities which have strict "gun control" laws also prohibit ordinary citizens from owning and using chemical defense sprays or stun guns, and the rationale is the same. Law- abiding citizens are disarmed of any possible effective means of self-defense because of the possibility of criminals misusing these weapons.

Some people in high-crime "gun control" zones like Washington, D.C. and other U.S. cities have taken to carrying cans of aerosol spray oven cleaner (potassium or sodium hydroxide, a powerful caustic agent) because the laws in these localities deny them the right to carry a non-toxic pepper spray, or any other effective means of self-defense. This illustrates precisely the type of "weapon substitution" effect that opponents of "gun control" argue will occur if any particular class of weapons, such as "Saturday Nite Specials," is banned. People who are determined to have weapons, whether they are honest citizens defending against crime, or criminals obtaining the tools of their trade, will find a way around any ban, and will often end up having a deadlier weapon that the one that has been banned. (After all, if someone is breaking the law anyway, it matters little whether they break it to carry a "Saturday Nite Special" or a sawed-off shotgun or machine gun.) Oven cleaner can cause permanent damage and/or blindness, and aside from the child-resistant cap (which would make the can difficult to use in emergency situations), oven cleaner cans lack the safety mechanisms which are found on many tear gas or pepper spray containers to prevent accidental discharge. Its permanent and harmful effects may also be used by prosecutors to prejudice a jury, moreso even than if the defender had used a gun! There's very little chance that banning oven cleaner will occur, since the only localities which have this "problem" are the ones which deny their good citizens any other means to protect themselves.

In Canada, use of pepper spray against bears and dogs is legal, but not against human predators. Only the police in Canada are allowed to use OC pepper spray on humans. Anyone else caught using this "prohibited weapon" to protect themselves faces a possible 10-year prison term! In spite of the law, Canadian citizens are "arming for bear" by exploiting this legal loophole, though the government is cracking down on sales. Pepper defense sprays are also legally unavailable to citizens in Germany, since German law requires that any such defensive spray be first tested on animals, and a 1987 German law prohibits the testing of weapons on animals. Pepper sprays are gaining popularity worldwide, however, since they are the most effective personal defense option for people whose governments don't trust their citizens with firearms, or for people who choose not to use firearms in defense of their lives and their families.

There has been some concern expressed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in about 30 cases in which pepper spray has thought to have been associated with deaths of suspects in police custody, but a review of these cases by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, a pro-"gun control" police organization, said that most of the incidents could be attributable to factors such as improper use of restraints like handcuffs in ways which restricted breathing, the suspect's obesity, and/or the suspect's use of alcohol and/or cocaine. That the ACLU could find only 28 such questionable incidents during the three year period of its investigation, and also the fact that ACLU did not claim that pepper spray directly caused the deaths, only underscores the essential safety of the sprays as a non-lethal defensive weapon. (In light of the ACLU's findings, users concerned about the remote possibility of killing an attacker with pepper spray should beware of using the spray against drunken asthmatic fat guys on "crack.")

Recommended Reading:

In The Gravest Extreme, by Massad Ayoob, p. 35-38
[available from Police Bookshelf, P.O. Box 122, Concord, NH 03301], ISBN 0-936297-00-1, (1980)

Jonathan Glater, "Wild Wild Wet,"_Washington Post,_July 25, 1994, p.F3

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