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What is Pepper Spray?

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A 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Justice among its 5 component agencies showed that of all the non-lethal weapons available to law enforcement, only two are commonly used by all the 5 agencies under the department: the baton and the pepper spray. 

The pepper spray and the baton are used by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the U.S. Marshals Service (USMS). 

These agencies' common preference for the baton and the pepper spray is an open endorsement to their effectiveness as non-lethal or less-lethal weapons.

Among civilians, pepper sprays are generally marketed towards the female population because of their compact size and ease of use. Even in TV and in movies pepper sprays are generally used by actresses. Recall the scene from Twilight were Bella Swan used pepper-sprayed one of the antagonist vampires.

The development of pepper spray, also known by its main ingredient Oleoresin Capsicum (OC), is attributed to Prof. James Jenkins and Dr. Frank Hayes. The duo developed the OC compound in 1960 at the University of Georgia and initially intended it to be used to repel dogs and other animals, hence the brand “Halt Animal Repellant.” 

Because of their effectiveness, pepper sprays became popular among postal workers who used them as protection against dog bites. More powerful pepper sprays also became a popular defense choice against pit bull attacks in Texas and California and bear attacks in Alaska.

In 1991, the FBI started adding pepper sprays in their arsenal of less-lethal weapons and in the process became one of the first law enforcement agencies to do so.

An attacker who gets pepper-sprayed will immediately feel extreme irritation in  areas where the Oleoresin Capsicum compound gets in contact with – this is usually the skin, eyes, mouth, face and throat. The effect is powerful and just long enough for the victim to escape from the attacker or for a law enforcement officer to manage control over a subject.

One reason why pepper spray is very popular among police and civilians is that it leaves no lasting effects on the target person. The effect is temporary and eventually wears off making it a safer choice compared to other non-lethal or less-lethal weapons. 

Pepper spray usually comes in an aerosol canister. Price ranges from under $10 up to $70 depending on the size of the canister. Traditionally, pepper sprays came in 2, 3 and 4 ounce canisters. Nowadays, the keychain version which holds about ½ ounce of OC is the most popular type of pepper spray because they are compact, easily accessible and inexpensive. 

Although this self-defense weapon is legal in all 50 states, civilians who intend to buy pepper spray should first check with their local police department. Possession and/or use of pepper sprays may be regulated in some jurisdictions.

By Daryl Taylor