Tuesday, March 20, 2001 | 9:03 a.m.
Mix a little cayenne pepper into a pot of stewed tomatoes and kidney beans and you're on your way to tasty chili.
Mix it with oils and solvents, put it into a canister that will spray the liquid anywhere from 6 to 10 feet and you have the No. 1 selling self-defense product in the country pepper spray.
It swells mucous membranes. It severely burns the skin, eyes and throat, temporarily blinding its victims and causing wheezing and shortness of breath that lasts from 20 to 45 minutes.
It's available in liquid or foam sprays, which may include colored identification dyes. It also comes in canisters disguised as fountain pens and beepers that clip to a hip or purse. There are key-chain canisters and pepper-spray holsters that allow you to shoot from the hip.
For the fitness-inclined, a pair of 1-pound weights called Hot Walkers are available to tone up on evening walks while warding off dogs and other potential attackers. Covered with foam handgrips and elastic bands, one weight carries a canister of pepper spray, while the other features a storage compartment for money and keys.
Also available for personal self-defense are stun guns, steel batons and personal alarms, which emit an ear-piercing sound with the yank of a chord.
American Security Products, based in Middletown, R.I., covers the gamut of self-defense items on its website, detercrime.com. For example, a stun baton/ alarm flashlight, sold as a four-in-one defense weapon features a sound alarm, a red light and a 200,000-volt stun baton.
With any nonlethal self-defense item, the plan is to incapacitate the attacker, then flee, said Jonathan Board, who teaches a personal protection and concealed weapons course to customers of the National Survivor Store on Spring Mountain Road. He has sampled, during training, the effects of stun guns and pepper spray.
Describing the reaction to pepper spray, Board said, "Your eyes slam shut. You actually have to stick your fingers in your eyes to open the eyelids. Then you have to flush 15 to 20 gallons of water per eye to neutralize it."
But, he added, "You can build up an immunity to it."
The National Survival Store is stocked with rifles, pistols, silencers and "Rambo"-style grenade launchers. It also sells pepper spray, stun guns, a wide array of knives and expandable steel batons, which are also known as the "Tonya Harding special," store owner Mark Felix said as he flicked open a steel stick.
"We get a lot of 50-year-old housewives buying batons because they use them on their evening strolls," Felix said.
Board added, "Most criminals aren't going to want to go against anyone who has any means of defending themselves. They're not looking for victims who can defend themselves."
Dos and don'ts
Legally defending yourself in Nevada means sticking with pepper spray or a stun gun. Nunchaku's (batons attached to a rope or chain used in martial arts, also called nunchucks), trefoils (metal plate with sharp edges) brass knuckles, blackjacks (small bags filled with lead), billy's (wooden clubs) or other metal knuckles -- all of these are illegal to carry in Nevada.
The use of steel batons is uncommon in the world of self-defense weaponry, as are stun guns, which disrupt the signal from the brain to the muscles, leaving the alleged attacker immobilized for several minutes as you flee to safety.
"The downside to stun guns is it's basically a contact weapon," said Brad Ackman, firearms instructor and operations manager for Frontsight, a firearms training institute in Pahrump.
The hand-held stun guns that require being close to an attacker are "marginally effective," he said.
"The beauty of (pepper spray) is it's perfectly legal and accepted and a deterrent. If you can use hair spray, you can use this."
Ackman has been carrying pepper spray since 1988 when he lived in Missoula, Mont., home of grizzly bears and moose. He said he carries a small canister in his fanny pack, and his wife carries one with her when she is out alone. She also keeps a large canister of pepper spray in her car, he said.
"I carried it originally for protection from dangerous game," Ackman said. "(But) it's equally effective or more effective against people. More is better. You want plenty of this stuff."
Military, police officers and letter carriers have been using pepper spray since the 1970s and '80s. But the use of pepper spray in 1997 on anti-logging demonstrators in Northern California, and protesters at the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle, Wash., has brought more attention to pepper spray.
Groups and organizations, such as the American Civil Liberties Union, Amnesty International, the Coalition for a Federal Ban on Pepper Spray and the Use of Chemical Weapons on Canadian Citizens, have spoken out against police using pepper spray on demonstrators.
Letter carriers for the U.S. Postal Service carry pepper spray to guard against dog attacks.
"It's part of the daily paraphernalia that's taken with them." Vic Fenimore, spokesman for the Postal Service, said.
"I've known carriers who have used it and it works to a certain extent," Fenimore said. "But if there's a place of delivery that will not abide by restraining their animal, we can actually stop service to the block. Dogs can kill people."
Eric Vaughn, a Las Vegas runner who runs in parks, on trails and through neighborhoods four or five times a week, carries pepper spray with him for the same reason, and said he's used it numerous times on dogs that have come after him.
"Dogs are a big problem to a runner," Vaughn said. "You can't escape a dog. When you're running you're vulnerable. Any-size dog is too big."
For some, pepper spray is the gateway to other forms of self-defense. Chris Swenson, gunsmith at the National Survivor Store, said most people who buy pepper spray at the store normally come back later and buy a stun gun. Many are likely to purchase a handgun, he said.
Local gun retailers say they sell anywhere from 10 to 20 canisters of pepper spray a week, mainly to gun owners who have been advised in their concealed carry weapons courses (required to obtain the necessary permit to carry a concealed weapon in Nevada) to use pepper spray as a first line of defense. Other pepper-spray customers include women who leave work late at night.
"Recently we've had a run on pepper spray," said Dirk Homan, an owner at Fearless Fready's, a store on West Sahara Avenue. "Generally it has to do with a wife coming out of the office alone."
But, he added, "Pepper spray generally is not always an effective tool. Some people can tolerate it more. You're better off being with other people."
Store owners recommend that those who have pepper spray test the product occasionally and check for expiration dates. Also, fresh batteries are required for stun guns to work effectively.
Store owners and officers say that many women carrying pepper spray keep it tucked away in their purse far from reach, rendering it useless should a robbery or assault occur.
"People buy it, put it in their purse and they think they are safe," Capt. Dennis Cobb of Metro Police said. "A robbery takes seven to 10 seconds and you don't see it coming because it's a robbery. I think the use among people who carry these things is small.
"I know it's occasionally used," he added. "Most often it's in a fight. It's hard to find an innocent victim."
Bob Irwin, owner of the Gun Store on East Tropicana Avenue, said he teaches a Concealed Carry Weapons class twice a week, and asks students if they carry pepper spray.
Usually about 30 percent of the people carry it, he said. But only "about 10 percent have it when I ask. They left it in the car or in the house."
Another problem with pepper spray is attackers using it against the victims, said Conrad Hall, instructor at United Studios of Self Defense on North Rainbow Boulevard.
Some people will hold the pepper spray out in front of them where attackers can knock it out of their hand or easily take it away and use it against them, he said.
"If you use one hand to block, they can't take your weapon," he advises.
For that reason, Kyle Hardy, a martial arts instructor and part-owner of Personal Defense Arts Inc., in Las Vegas, suggests not carrying any self-defense weapons at all.
"It's a false sense of security," he said. "They can use it against you. Batteries can run out. You have to spray (pepper spray) now and then to test them -- but then it can run out.
"Your intuition is the best weapon of all," he said. "Get rid of the opportunity."