I love curry. Same goes for chili and anything spicy. The key ingredient in both is capsaicin, an oily chemical produced naturally in the plant genus Capsicum–the peppers. Chew on a jalapeno and the capsaicin simulates the nerves that sense heat and pain. The “heat”, measured in Scoville Heat Units (SHU), ranges from 0 SHU in green bell peppers to 210,000 SHU in orange habaneros. It makes food interesting, but it can also cross the line from pleasure to pain. Those who pick hot peppers for a living call it “Hunan hand”, the inflammation and pain that can result from too much exposure to capsacin. It is this property that makes it useful as an all-natural, non-lethal, “chemical self-defense weapon” for the discerning voluntaryist.
Pepper Spray is now used in thousands of “public safety” agencies. This substance consists of from 1 to 13% capsacin in various liquid carriers with gaseous propellants, packaged in an aerosol can that can be pointed and sprayed at the target person. The Scoville units of these things are measured in the millions. Sprayed in the face, they cause involuntary closing of the eyes, intense irritation of mucous membranes, trouble breathing, and usually, temporary incapacitation. One study of 690 instances of the use of pepper spray by Baltimore County police officers found the 5%, 2,ooo,000 SHU spray “incapacitated” the suspects in 71% of the cases and “aided arrest” in 85%.1 Other studies place the effectiveness at 85–95%.2
On the “continuum of force” from verbal commands to bullets, most police would place pepper spray near physical force (hands, batons, kicks) in terms of severity, but below tasers and handguns.2 As pointed out by Eric Puryear, “Guns work by disrupting an attacker’s vital organs in such as way to to physically stop them from continuing their attack. This means that an attacker cannot become desensitized to bullets the way they could become desensitized to the pain and irritation from pepper spray.” The Baltimore study cited above found that although alcohol had no effect on the response of the target to pepper spray, the spray was less effective when the suspect was under the influence of drugs (only 47% were incapacitated). In fact, it is possible even for a sober individual to continue to function (to some degree) under the influence of pepper spray–police officers often undergo training on how to cope with being sprayed.
Bottom line: Pepper sprays are clearly not as effective as guns for stopping an assailant. But their nonlethality can be an advantage. Though there have been instances of severe reactions and even death, chances of adverse health effects of pepper sprays are around 1 out of 6250. This means there is little to no risk of injury to bystanders. It also means they can be used where deadly force may be questionable, such as during a physical altercation or where the threat is less certain than might be necessary for the use of a firearm. For a good online discussion of these aspects, see here. As one commenter put it, “…from the tactical side, it’s always best to be able to fill in what one police instructor called ‘the vast gray area between a kind word and a bullet.'”
Another distinct advantage of pepper sprays is that they can usually be carried without a permit (check your local laws to be sure–Massachusetts requires a firearms permit) and may be used by people not trained in or comfortable with the use of firearms. They are definitely better than nothing for wives and children who are wary of or too young for guns. In addition, they are so inexpensive that several cans can be easily purchased and kept in various locations.
While they may not be the best option when life is on the line, pepper sprays have their place in self-defense. And we must keep in mind that the purpose of self-defense is just that: defense. The purpose of self-defense is not to kill the assailant. The ideal weapon would be one that totally incapacitated the assailant 100% of the time with no ill health effects. Until we can “set our phasers on stun” we might want to consider pepper spray as part of our arsenal. In a real sense, they are the “common man’s (or woman’s) chemical weapon.”
1Kaminski, Robert J., Steven M. Edwards, and James W. Johnson. “Assessing the Incapacitative Effects of Pepper Spray during Resistive Encounters with Police.” Policing: Int. J. Police Strat. & Mgmt. 7 (1999):7–29. Print.
2Smith, Michael R. and Geoffrey P. Alpert. “Pepper Spray: A Safe and Reasonable Response to Suspect Verbal Resistance.” Policing: Int’l J. Police Strat. & Mgmt. 23 (2000):233–245. Print.