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Pepper spray. It’s not a condiment.

People have been using hot peppers as a weapon since 311 BC, when the Chinese burned red pepper and oil to use against enemy soldiers. Today its use looks more like, a woman carrying it at the bottom of her purse, under her melting gum and crumpled receipts. She probably: largely forgets that it is there, has never touched it since stowing it, checked off the “personal protection” check box in her mind when she got it, and now feels that-on some level-that area is covered.

I point this out not to ridicule. I’m an insider. When I hit the “add to cart” button on the pepper spray with the elastic hand holster for runners, I felt on top of things, and that I had taken responsible precautions to enable me to go on my night time jogs with an easy mind. I then barely carried it. I couldn’t have actually thought it would help me from the junk bin by my back door, but somehow by just purchasing it, I came away feeling safer, as though it earned me 20 points that count toward Personal Safety, and it takes 1,000 to achieve invincibility.

This untouched, forgotten spray is helping no one. And it may be doing more harm than good. A false sense of security is dangerous. When we feel confident in our security, we aren’t as aware of the details in our surroundings, and we certainly aren’t analyzing them. When you don’t believe you could come to harm, you aren’t noticing red flags. What IS very effective here, and in all sorts of survival scenarios, is humility over confidence.

Humility keeps us from overestimating our skills and thinking we are singled out as special, untouchable by the world. It allows us to know our limits. And pertinent to this discussion, it allows us to realize we do not have the speed to find, retrieve, and effectively aim pepper spray at someone, all after the moment we realize that we are in actual danger.

Back in the 80’s there was an experiment done with twelve women, all licensed to carry tear gas (for our purposes, no different from pepper spray, use and dispensation being the same). A parking lot scenario was staged, where each woman would be attacked four times. They knew they would be attacked, but not how or when. They all had the spray already in their hands with the safety off. To create a more realistic environment, other non-attackers were also staged in the area, so the women couldn’t just point and shoot at every person they saw.

Out of 48 simulated assaults, the women hit their attackers only 20% of the time. They hit them in the face only a few times. This is troublesome. I think part of the problem here is that they were trying not to spray non-attackers, and also clearly their aim was poor.

In real life, I see a couple of things to do to combat these problems. As far as hesitation to pull the trigger (or first, to get it ready in your hand), listen to your gut feeling. If you feel uneasy in a set of circumstances, there’s probably a reason, even if you can’t put your finger on it. That is instinct and you should trust it. Something bad isn’t going to happen every time in warns you of course, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a legitimate source of information.

Holding spray in your hand doesn’t have to be conspicuous, if that concerns you. I keep one on my key ring and often carry my keys by it just because it’s a handy grip. The truth is, for pepper spray to be at all effective as a defensive tool, you have to have it in your hand, with the trigger safety off, BEFORE an incident begins to occur. That’s why being aware of your surroundings is an absolute necessity.

The second problem the women in the experiment had was aim. There are different dispensation types: stream, fog, foam, gel. The most common is stream. The stream comes out in just that, a very focused stream. This is good because it can shoot a further distance than a dispersed spray, but it covers little area. This means if you simply point and shoot like a gun, you are not likely to hit your target. You want to sweep you arm back and forth while spraying at head level in the whole general direction of your target.

Range on sprays can vary from 4 ft. to 15 ft. I have the Sabre 3 in 1 (pepper spray/ tear gas/ UV marker). I tried it out to see how far it would actually go, what it felt like to switch off the safety with my thumb, and then to press the trigger. It went at least 10 ft. The button took a firmer pressure than I anticipated, but wasn’t difficult to press. Know these things about your spray so your expectations are informed and your fingers have a little familiarity with what to do.

Each spray will tell you the approximate number of uses it has in it. This of course depends, because the spray comes out for as long as you hold down the trigger. But still, know this number and keep track of how many times you have used it, either for regular testing, or—as an anecdote I actually heard from a co-worker goes—for spraying on bland camp food when you have no seasoning. The latter was not a positive experience.

You will probably want to replace the spray before you get anywhere near the limit. The potency isn’t effected much with age, but the pressure that expels the spray lessens over time. That’s why you want to test it every now and again, and replace it every couple of years.

Some additional useful notes:

  • Be aware of possible blow back if it is windy. Pepper spray burns the eyes, but also can cause respiratory distress. So if you have respiratory issues yourself, this isn’t a good tool for you.

  • You need to shake it like a polaroid picture to get the chemicals to mix and be at their most effective.

  • Pay attention to the direction of the nozzle if you don’t want to endanger or embarrass yourself.

  • Pepper spray is legal in all 50 states, but there are restrictions in some states based on quantity, potency or age of buyer.

  • It is scientifically know as oleoresin capsicum, for you nerds.

  • “Do not try to capture your attacker.” -Sabre spray packaging

  • There was an Outkast reference on this list. If you recognized it, you get 10 points toward Personal Safety. It doesn’t make you safer, but I’m feeling generous and I made up the game in the first place.

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