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The Denver Pepper Spray Shooting

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I’ve seen lots of internet commentary on Saturday’s fatal shooting at a large protest rally in Denver.  If you haven’t seen the story, check out the link below for details.


TV crew’s Pinkerton security guard shoots ‘Patriot Muster’ protester dead after he fired mace at him


Details about the shooting continue to emerge.  The man who was killed was a military veteran whose family said he was at the protest to support the police.  Allegedly, the two men got in an argument about a button on the victim’s shirt.  That argument came to blows.  It’s uncertain at this time who struck whom first.



Initial reports stated that the shooter was an armed security guard protecting a TV news producer.  Later reports stated that the “security guard” was actually not licensed.  Other sources stated that he had been involved in  local ANTIFA groups in the past


After the push/slap, the victim pulled out what appears to be a can of Frontiersman Bear Spray (an excellent choice for defending against multiple human attackers as well as large furry mammals) and discharged a blast in the suspect’s direction.  The suspect responded by firing a single handgun bullet.  The round struck the victim in the head and killed him instantly.  The shooter has been booked into jail on a murder charge.


A great choice for defending against multiple attackers


The internet is melting down with debate about whether or not it is reasonable to use lethal force (a firearm) against an attacker armed with pepper spray.  The crux of the argument in favor of shooting seems to be the idea that if one is incapacitated by the pepper spray, one might not be able to defend against a gun grab attempt.  After disabling someone with pepper spray, the attacker could then remove the defender’s gun from the holster and shoot him/her with it.


While a gun grab is certainly a POSSIBLE outcome in the encounter, it is not a LIKELY outcome.    Lots of people have been pepper sprayed (by both the police and “the other side”) in various protests over the last few months.  How many news stories have you seen where a pepper sprayed victim was then disarmed and shot with his own weapon?  That’s right.  None.


There is a difference between possible and likely.  While it’s POSSIBLE that 20 ninjas could rappel down from my ceiling and kill me with a barrage of throwing stars, it isn’t LIKELY.  Self defense claims require a REASONABLE expectation of suffering serious injury or death, not a mere POSSIBILITY of that happening.


That doesn’t mean it would never be appropriate to shoot an attacker armed with pepper spray.  In my opinion, if a criminal was using pepper spray and was ACTUALLY attempting to disarm his victim, it likely WOULD justify a lethal response. 


The problem is that the criminal has to be trying to take the gun for the victim to reasonably fear for his life.  We need reasonable, articulable facts that would lead a person in a similar situation to believe that a disarming attempt was immanent.  Mere possibility of an event happening isn’t enough evidence to keep us out of jail. 


One might be able to argue that being disabled by the spray combined with a verbal threat to take the gun might be enough evidence to make a lethal force response reasonable.  From the news reports I’ve read, the victim did not threaten or attempt to take the suspect’s firearm in the Denver case.


Pepper spray simply does not rise to the level of being a deadly weapon.  It is extremely unlikely to cause serious injury or death.


Furthermore, it’s going to be tough to show that pepper spray is a lethal weapon when almost every police department in the country places the use of pepper spray at one of the LOWEST levels on the use of force continuum.  In most police agencies, you are required to pepper spray a resisting subject (if feasible) before you even consider using empty handed strikes against him. 


Pepper spray sucks, I know.  I’ve been exposed to it more than 50 times in training and on the street.  It causes a lot of pain and some temporary blindness, but it doesn’t cause serious injury.  If it doesn’t cause serious injury or death, you aren’t justified in using lethal force to defend against it.


In summary, the use of pepper spray against you by a criminal suspect generally IS NOT a justification to use lethal force.


I think the suspect in this case is going to be convicted and will serve a long prison sentence.


Learn from his mistake.  Please do not shoot someone who is only armed with pepper spray and who has not made threats or performed actions that would make you believe that he intends to take your firearm and shoot you with it.  Pepper spray in and of itself is not a lethal threat.


If you can’t shoot the bad guy, what can you do?


I think the first step to consider is retreating.  Most small cans of chemical irritant have a very limited range.  The small key chain type sprays only shoot about five feet.  The larger canisters that cops carry shoot a stream that is 10-15 feet.  Excepting the large fire extinguisher-style cans, you would be out of range of any commonly carried chemical spray if you could get at least 20 feet away.


Simply turning and running away would save you from experiencing the majority of the effects of even a large blast of bear spray.  Doing that may not be satisfying, but it might ultimately be the best (and certainly least costly) course of action if one wanted to avoid any further contact with the criminal justice system.


If escape isn’t an option, shielding can work.  If the spray doesn’t get in your eyes, you will likely still be able to function at almost full capacity.  You might cough a bit, but you won’t be disabled.  Cover your eyes with a hand.  Alternately you can go into a “horizontal elbow shield” position and tuck your face inside the crook of your elbow for protection.  Even holding something like a briefcase or notepad over your face will stop the majority of the spray from getting into your eyes.


My late friend Paul Gomez demonstrating the horizontal elbow shield 


What about a counter attack?  In a situation like this, physical force may be a viable solution.  Just because you can’t legally shoot most people who attack you with pepper spray, doesn’t mean you must stand idle  while a criminal assaults you.  Physical force to defend against a pepper spray attack would likely be judged favorably.


Depending on the attack you are facing, striking or kicking the attacker would likely be considered reasonable, assuming you didn’t initiate the confrontation.  You can also attack with the purpose of taking the canister away  from the attacker.  No one expects you to eat a full can of OC spray just because you can’t shoot your attacker.  You don’t have to just “take it.”  You can most certainly act to defend yourself and stop the attack against you.


If you can’t escape, counterattack, or shield, recognize that you are going to be sprayed.  Know in advance how you will react.   You can usually continue fighting, but some people panic the first time they are hit with the spray.  Their panic leads to a freezing response that makes them unlikely to be able to defend themselves. The spray painful.  It makes you cough and your eyes burn.  But most of you can fight through the pain as long as you know what to expect.


If you do get exposed, the best antidote is cold running water and fresh air.  I’ve tried almost all the commercial decontamination products on the market.  None are as good as a garden hose.  If you can’t gain access to running water, flushing your eyes with bottled water or saline solution will work well.  Using some type of soap to remove the capsicum oils on the skin will also help with decontamination.


If none of these are available, you’ll have to flush your eyes the natural way, by blinking rapidly.  Close your eyes as hard as possible, open them quickly and repeat until the tears start flowing.  It will be painful to open your eyes at first and you won’t want to do this, but I promise you’ll decontaminate more quickly.


With the police tear gassing of rioters leading every news program and newspaper for the last few months, I would expect more of these attacks in the future.  People are thinking a lot about tear gas and pepper spray.  Be prepared to deal with an attacker who is armed with aerosol irritants.  And stay away from any local riots or protests.






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