In my recently published on-body EDC items article, I talked about pepper spray. To be honest, I’m very curious by the talismanic quality of The Gun and how many in the self-defense community completely ignore everything else (not all, but many to be sure). If you’re not carrying pepper spray, here are my best arguments to convince you otherwise. You can expect to see more articles about pepper spray here. I am going to do my best to encourage everyone to consider this tool.
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First, there are many places that you can take pepper spray but can’t take your gun. I know some of you will claim to, “never go anywhere I can’t take my gun” (I hope you’re in great shape because if you ever get hospitalized…) this is an unacceptable position for most. It certainly is for me. My gun is a compliment to my life, not a limiting factor in it. My gun exists in service to me, not to the other way around. Still, all things being equal, I’d prefer not to be defenseless.
There are an awful lot of places you carry pepper spray that you can’t carry a gun. For example, I can’t legally carry a gun in entire states! Examples include California, Illinois, New Jersey, and Maryland, to name a few. But I can carry O.C. spray in all of these states. Currently I am an EMT student. The carry of firearms is not allowed on the campus I attend. When I go to my doctor’s office I’m sternly warned that I am entering a gun-free zone. . . but there is zero mention of pepper spray on the sign on the door.
I am constantly amazed at the lack of limitation on places where pepper spray may be carried. I’m sure there are still a few places you can’t bring pepper spray – sporting and concert venues with metal detectors, for instance – but they are few and far between.
Oh, and here’s one more: if I’m out and decide to grab a beer with lunch, I don’t have to make a difficult decision: carry and break the law or disarm myself. My state does not permit any alcohol in the blood while carrying a firearm, which obviously prohibits carry while drinking. That doesn’t mean I’m never going to go out and have a beer. Pepper spray gives me a strong, legal alternative for those occasions when I decide to leave my gun at home and have a few.
Maybe the most important reason to carry pepper spray is that you can use it in a lot of situations where you can’t use a gun. Guns are very narrow-band, very specialized tools that aren’t appropriate for many situations. Guns are the tool of choice when you’ve been left with no other choice but to use lethal force. But pepper spray? Pepper spray is much more versatile. I can get pepper spray into the fight way, way earlier. I don’t have to wait until I’m facing an imminent, credible threat of death to get my the pepper spray involved.
Can you also use pepper spray against a lethal-force threat? I’m sure I’ll get some hate mail for saying this but, “sure you can.” If I were faced with such a threat and didn’t have my gun on me (the fact is sometimes I don’t have a gun on me) would I use pepper spray? I sure as hell would. It’s not ideal (when we really stop and think about it, is a pistol ideal? It certainly gets ‘closer’ but it still ain’t hard plates, rifles, and two of my buddies.) but it’s also not nothing.
One of the reasons for pepper spray’s lack of popularity (in my opinion) is also one of its big benefits. The lack of popularity (at least among gun guys) is that pepper spray isn’t cool. Pepper spray always “feels” like a second-best, cop-out option for chicks that won’t carry guns. And I’ll be honest: pepper spray isn’t cool. It doesn’t look sexy on Instagram, you can’t order a custom one, there are no photos of SOF guys pepper spraying terrorists. Pepper spray just doesn’t have that cool-guy cachet.
But that’s also a huge benefit. Pepper spray flies completely under the radar. Pepper spray is acceptable af. Your mom probably carries some in a leatherette case on her keys. They literally sell pepper spray (Sabre Red, decent spray in cheesy form-factor) in the checkout line at Lowe’s. There’s no license, no waiting period, usually not even a glass counter between you and a can of pepper spray. No one looks at you askance when you say you have some.
Remember I mentioned carrying O.C. spray on the campus where I’m attending my EMT class? There’s a chick in the class with a can on her key chain that is always laid out, openly displayed on her desk. Do you think I have any qualms whatsoever about having a can in my pocket? Do you think anyone would think twice if they actually noticed it?
If you need an even more discrete option that doesn’t look like pepper spray, there are some good ones out there. My buddy Rich Brown really likes the ASP Palm Defender. It’s a cylindrical aluminum key-chain attachment that takes replaceable pepper spray canisters. It just looks like a Kubaton-style key chain attachment. If you didn’t know better you’d never know it was pepper spray. My only beef with this tool is the very limited spray range of about 3′.
The non-threatening nature of pepper spray gives you another option, too: the ability to carry it openly in certain circumstances. Pepper spray is 1. almost universally accepted and 2. less likely (than a gun) to be recognized by anyone at distance. You probably get even more of a pass if you’re a woman, especially at night.
But I take advantage occasionally, too. Let’s talk about that for a second, with two quick anecdotes. First, I do a ton of long distance road trips. Occasionally I stop at a gas station (either for gas or to hit the restroom) and realize I don’t love the look of the place I’ve chosen. Even though I have my gun on me, it’s about a second away from being deployed in the absolute best-case scenario. However, I may very well have pepper spray, already out in my hand as I stand around pumping gas. Does anyone notice? Nope. Would someone probably notice if I were standing around holding a gun?
Here’s another: back in the summer our town had a big festival in the middle of town. We walked down there and hung out for the concert one night. Again, I had my gun on me. Walking back to our car (which we parked at a friend’s house in town) I realized it was really, really dark out. So in one hand was a flashlight and in the other was a can of pepper spray. At night is anyone going to notice a can of pepper spray in my hand? If they do will it be instantly recognizable as pepper spray? If it is, is that going to be a problem? The answer to all of the above is “probably not.”
This is another reason I like the Fox Mean Green pepper spray: the coloring of the label. The black and dark green don’t stand out like a lot of products with a brightly-colored red label.
Legal & Civil Jeopardy
Not many of us really like to think about this one (“better to be judged by twelve…”) but we should. Anytime you pull your gun out you introduce a greater than zero-percent chance that you will cost yourself a literal fortune and spend some time in prison. The financial, legal, and civil hazards of using a firearm in self-defense – even justified self-defense – are massive.
There are all sorts of risk involved in using a firearm. If you kill the dude, you’re potentially facing a murder charge. Look at George Zimmerman. He won, but at what cost? His estimated legal bill was well over a million and a half dollars. Not only was his legal bill insane, he was dragged through the mud in the media and his life is basically turned upside down. He also has to live with the emotional cost of killing another (yet another thing we almost never talk about). If there is anything I can do to avoid shooting another person, I will do it. Even if you’re found not guilty, great – you could still face civil litigation.
If it’s justified and there’s no other choice, then use the gun – I’m not telling you not to. But if there’s any other choice at all, I’ll take it. Pepper spray gives you that option that you can use in those low-level, or even borderline situations with confidence that you’re not potentially setting yourself up for felony charge. Let’s say you misread the situation completely or worse – sprayed the completely wrong person – with pepper spray it’s probably not a life-altering felony. It is a much more legally forgiving tool.
Here is another benefit: pepper spray is cheap. Of course the costs range on a sliding scale like most other things, but even “high end” pepper spray caps out at around $20/can (for normal, carry-sized cans). I actually know people (and have close family members, and you probably do, too) for whom $500 for a pistol and some ammunition literally represents months of saving. In the meantime, would I recommend they go without protection? Absolutely not. Pepper spray can definitely stand in that gap a heck of a lot better than a pocket full of nothing.
I’m generally not one to advocate low cost as a reason to choose a tool, but I have leveraged the low cost to my advantage in the past. If I carry pepper spray to a concert, I’m prepared to trash it if I absolutely have to. I generally have some smaller, less aggressive-looking cans for this purpose (and I’m not above throwing it in my girlfriend’s purse, figuring the guards are more likely to wave her through with pepper spray). I haven’t had to ditch a can for this reason yet, though I have ditched some pepper spray for other reasons.
Occasionally I have to fly out to town. Sometimes my work sees me in some pretty sketchy locations. Sometimes I can carry a firearm, and sometimes I can’t. If I can carry, not problem: I’ll check a bag, bring my gun, and throw in a can of pepper spray. If I don’t want to check a bag – or can’t carry – I’ll order a small can of pepper spray and have it delivered to my hotel. I’ll pick it up when I check in, carry it while I’m there, and when I leave I either give it to someone I worked with who is traveling with checked luggage, or a local contact in the area . Would I do that with a gun? Couldn’t afford to, and I’d put myself at serious legal peril.
Additive Benefits, Not Replacement
At this point someone is probably pissed off, thinking that I’m trying to somehow suggest that pepper spray a replacement for a gun or better than a gun or that since I am not expressing unabashed love for guns that I hate guns (it happened last time I wrote about pepper spray). Here’s the thing: it’s not one or the other. Why not both?
I still carry a gun. I’m quite good with it, and I’m mentally and emotionally prepared to use it if given no alternative. If you’re competent and legal, I recommend you carry a gun. But here’s the thing: if you carry pepper spray, too, you get all of these benefits plus the benefit of a gun.
Selecting Pepper Spray
I’m not the pepper spray expert. If there were anyone who I’m aware of that is the expert is Chuck Haggard. You’ll notice a lot of the information in this article overlaps with what Chuck has said on Ballistic Radio (caution: INSECURE LINK), Recoil Magazine, and elsewhere. I freely admit that I learned a lot of what I know from his writing. At the end of the day, though, we all have to make our own decisions. Here’s my take on what I carry. In the last EDC post I said that I carry Fox’s Mean Green and listed a few reasons, but I left out a couple details, so I’ll cover the whole thing.
First, I like that it’s green instead of red. There is no chance of the spray running down someone’s face being confused with blood. Secondly, Mean Green has a MC (Major Capsaicinoids) of 1.22. That’s not the highest out there (the highest is around 1.33) but it’s solid (and I’ll explain this in the next section). Thirdly, as I mentioned earlier, I like the color of the can. It doesn’t stand out. I also like the size of the can – I can palm it with just the nozzle portion sticking out.
I’d really like to work with the Defense Technologies 360 spray (MCC: 1.33) a little bit more. The “360” means it will spray regardless of how the can is oriented (upside down, sideways, etc.), which I like the idea of. Unfortunately, this can is a little big for me. It’s slightly longer and slightly larger in diameter than the Fox can, even though it holds slightly less spray (1.4 ounces versus Fox’s 1.5). I think it would be fine for a duty belt, but for concealed pocket carry it’s too large for my liking.
When it comes to stream vs. cone vs. fog, I’m a stream guy. A stream requires some aim and probably lowers your hit probably a bit, but also gives you the benefit of a bit more range. The stream also cuts down quite a bit on the potential for blow-back (though I’d still be aware of the wind before opening up). Since I could conceivably have to use my spray while seated in my car (at a stop light, for instance) I want something with minimal chances of impacting me. Finally, I want a form factor that comes with an inert training unit. All of the sprays I’ve listed here (Sabre Red, the ASP Palm Defender, Fox Mean Green, and Defense Technologies) offer companion inert units. There’s a pepper spray option out there to fit just about any need.
Choosing Your Own Path
My choice probably isn’t everybody’s choice. I would recommend you spend some time thinking about pepper spray, making an informed decision (rather than whatever is on the shelf at your local gun store), and carrying a less lethal, widely deployable option. Here is what I recommend looking for in a pepper spray product:
MC or MCC: Major Capsaicinoids or Major Capsaicinoid Content. This is the true measure of the strength of pepper spray. Avoid falling for marketing gimmicks like listing the Scoville Heat Units (SHU) or the percentage of O.C. in the can (up to 10%). These numbers can be extremely misleading. If a pepper spray manufacturer doesn’t list the MC or MCC, move on to someone who does. Chuck Haggard says an MCC of as low as 0.70% is good to go, but there are plenty that are in the 1.2 – 1.3 range; I’d think about one of those.
Stream, Cone, or Fog: this one is one you need to choose for yourself. A stream is going to be the most concentrated spray. It will give you the most range, the most precision, and the smallest likelihood of blowback. However, it also is the most difficult to get a hit with; you’ll have to “aim” and make sure it makes contact with the eyes, nose, and mouth. The cone is a middle ground, spraying a cone-shaped pattern of mist. This gives you some range – not as much as a stream but more than a fog. The cone and fog patterns are also much more aerosolized than the stream, letting OC find the eyes and mucous membranes of the respiratory tract more readily. The fog has the shortest distance, but the widest pattern.
Personally, I’d stay away from the “gel” versions. I’ve heard anecdotal reports of individuals wiping the gel off, and Chuck Haggard reports that the gel takes significantly longer to have an effect. To each his own; that’s just like, my opinion, man.
Form Factor: this is another one that is personal preference, but I will offer a couple of thoughts. Consider how you will carry pepper spray and how you will get it into the fight. If it’s buried in the bottom of a purse or sitting in the console of your pickup are you going to be able to access it in time? Ideally it would be on your body, in a consistent location with some index points so you could retrieve and deploy it without looking at it. There are all sorts of cans with clips, cans inside plastic handles, cans in keychain attachments…. Just remember, the more secure it is, the harder it’s going to be to deploy in an emergency.
Inert Version: I’ve hammered this already and again Sabre Red, the ASP Palm Defender, Fox Mean Green, and Defense Technologies all offer inert versions. I’ll say it again, though: get at least one inert can. Even after it’s empty you can still use it in your practice sessions. Yes, I practice with my pepper spray. I practice retrieving it. I practice transitioning from it to my pistol, and vise-versa. At a minimum use it to practice getting it out, under stress, in a hurry.
Pepper spray is not a gun. When you need a gun, you need one. But when you don’t need a gun, a gun is the wrong tool. Period. Give yourself another option. If you’re carrying a spare magazine but not pepper spray…maybe do some analysis into what you’re actually likely to face and base your carry decisions around data instead of emotion.