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The Fight Against Crime: Notes From The Front : Business Is Red Hot for Pepper Spray

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Just last month, an adult who wanted to carry Mace for self-defense had to go through a state-approved three-hour training course to obtain a permit.

Today, if your 16-year-old has a problem with the school bully, he or she can pick up a container of pepper spray-- which is even stronger--at K mart for $3.99, like toothpaste.

And business is booming, storekeepers say.

That’s the revolution wrought by a change in state law that went into effect Jan. 1.

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Pepper spray, or oleoresin capsicum, is a mixture of cayenne pepper and a resin fluid sold as a self-defense weapon that will disable an attacker without doing permanent injury. A quick blast in the face and the recipient is down for about 20 minutes with disabling, stinging pain in the nose, eyes, mouth and skin. Mace, by comparison, usually affects only the eyes and nose.

From the early 1980s until Jan. 1, California adults who wanted to tote Mace had to attend a state-approved course to obtain a permit. Pepper spray was used only by police until 1992. But as of this year, under a bill written by Assemblywoman Jackie Speier (D-Burlingame), anyone over age 16 can carry pepper spray or Mace without a permit or training--although 16- and 17-year-olds need to be accompanied by a parent or guardian, or have their written consent to purchase it.

Hundreds of San Fernando Valley residents are taking advantage of the change.

At the sporting goods section in the Northridge K mart, for example, employee Lloyd Fong said the store’s pepper spray supply has been sold out. And at the West Hills location, more than 300 cans have been purchased in the past three weeks.

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The five-squirt size costs about $12.

Barbara Wood of the Agoura Hills Target Range--most dealers are gun shops--said sales were brisk there too.

“In today’s world, with all the things we have to deal with, like carjackings and robberies, you need to protect yourself whatever way you can,” Wood said.

Not everyone is happy about the lifting of restrictions.

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Allan Parachini, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said his organization lobbied against the change.

“There’s been a lot of hoopla and hype about pepper spray,” Parachini said. “People are being led to believe that it can do things that it can’t.”

Parachini said the public may think the spray is 100% effective, but many criminals on drugs or alcohol may not be crippled by the spray. In turn, he said, criminals may use the spray as a weapon themselves or snatch the pepper spray from their intended victim and use it against them. Police say that unnecessary use could lead to assault charges.

Parachini also alleged that at least 26 people, two with asthma, have died after being sprayed.

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Wood countered that no self-defense tactic is perfect.

“You can say that about any type of self-defense,” Wood said. “Any type of weapon could be turned against you. And if an asthmatic person attacks you, then that’s their problem.”

Fear of crime is the obvious reason for the boom, said police Sgt. Brett Papworth of the Van Nuys Division.

“There’s a difference between statistical crime and the fear of being threatened,” Papworth said. “To feel menaced you don’t have to have a serial killer around.”

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“I think it’s a great idea. Anytime you have a nonlethal way for people to protect themselves, I think that’s super.”


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