The Problem with Less-Lethal Weapons

20121104-181310.jpgWhen I talk to women about armed self-defense, a certain percentage of them are bound to ask me what I think of less-lethal weapons, such as TASERs and OC spray. (I call these “less-lethal” because there is a small, but non-zero, risk of fatal complications from both.)

For women who know they need something more than hand-to-hand combat skills to ensure their own safety, but who don’t feel emotionally prepared for the possibility of taking a life, less-lethal alternatives might seem an appealing proposition. After all, they can end the threat without having to actually kill someone. Right?

Well, not exactly.

There are two main problems I see with less-lethal weapons from an armed civilian self-defense standpoint. The first, of course, is that they may not end the threat. Cops and soldiers can learn to fight through pepper spray, and you bet the criminals can learn those skills too. Plus, the deployment of chemical sprays is dependent on the direction and strength of the wind, and it’s far from uncommon for the defending citizen (or cop) that deploys these weapons to catch some of the spray in her own face.

TASERs are a problem for a different reason. If the attacker is close enough to deploy a TASER (15 yards or less) and you get a solid contact with the barbs, you can indeed deliver a fairly debilitating shock that lasts for 30 seconds. The problem is that after the shock is over, there are no significant lingering side effects for the perpetrator besides tired and sore muscles. The official training materials for the TASER suggest that, once the shock starts, you drop the weapon on the ground and run. But how willing are you to bet your life that you can run farther in 30 seconds than the bad guy can follow once the lightning stops?

Don’t get me wrong – for cops and soldiers, I think both TASERs and chemical sprays have their place. But remember, they have different missions than an armed citizen does. What works well for the mission of a cop doesn’t work well for a private armed citizen.

The cop’s mission is to deter crime where possible, and to find and arrest bad guys after crimes are committed. When a cop deploys a TASER or pepper spray, his objective is generally to buy a few seconds of time to get handcuffs secured on a perpetrator, or to buy time for backup to arrive. That’s why police TASERs only deliver an 8-second shock: eight seconds is usually enough for the cop, or his partner, to tackle the bad guy and cinch the cuffs on. Cops also have sidearms, shotguns, and/or rifles they can deploy if the less-lethal option doesn’t stop the threat.

For those in the military, the mission is generally similar: Neutralize and detain the bad guy. But rarely is the soldier, sailor, airman, or marine alone. Generally, our troops have backup, both in the form of additional combatants that can be mustered to the fight for back-up and in the form of heavier weaponry at their disposal. Soldiers might use OC grenades or a TASER to neutralize a potential threat, but they can fall back on rifles, pistols, or heavier munitions if the threat doesn’t stay neutralized.

As armed citizens, our mission is quite a different one. It isn’t our job to clear a building and detain potential threats. Finding the bad guys and bringing them in? Nope. Apprehending suspected insurgents or terrorists? Also not our job. Our task is to stay alive, to go home to our families, and to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. That’s all.

And, too, few of us have the luxury of backup a radio call away. We don’t have body armor and rifles instantly at our disposal if the mugger in the grocery store parking lot doesn’t stop when we loose that blast of pepper spray. We probably don’t have the luxury of knowing help is seconds away. In fact, if the national average holds in your area, you’ll be waiting 8-12 minutes between when you make your 9-1-1 call and when the first responding officer gets there. If your pepper spray or TASER doesn’t stop the threat, what the heck are you going to do for the next eight minutes?

I’m living proof of this harsh reality of self-defense from a violent predator: The bad guy can inflict an awful lot of hurt in eight minutes.

But it isn’t just that a less-lethal weapon might not stop the threat. For the women who carry these tools, they can impart a false sense of security. “I’ll be safe,” we might say to ourselves. “I have pepper spray in my purse, and I took those Krav Maga lessons.” And, indeed, if we’re lucky, that might be all we need to keep ourselves safe. The problem is that if we’re in a situation where those less-lethal tools don’t neutralize the threat, by the time we discover they haven’t worked it’ll be too late.

A few people have asked me, “If I know I couldn’t ever bring myself to use deadly force, isn’t a can of OC spray better than nothing?” I struggle with the answer to that question, but I’m not sure it is. In my mind, a weapon that not only fails to stop the threat, but serves to inflame the predator and escalate the potential level of violence in the encounter isn’t better than nothing. If you truly can’t bring yourself to use force, deadly force if need be, to protect your safety, then my thought is that you need to work really hard on your situational awareness and do everything you can to stay out of trouble’s way. And, you have to find a way to be okay with the fact that, if trouble does find you, you probably won’t have any options besides compliance and luck.

As for me? I’ve twice been in a place where compliance and luck were all I had to rely on, and it’s taken me two decades to heal the shattering psychological aftermath of those experiences. I choose armed self-defense because I’m not willing trust my safety to the mercy of a monster again. I choose not to carry less-lethal weapons because I don’t see how they really up the odds for me that much.

When the bad guy decides it’s going to be him or me, I’ll do everything in my power to decide it won’t be me. And that’s why I’m an armed citizen.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Comments

  1. You’ve done an excellent job of making your point articulately. It’s something that all people (not just women) who are interested in “less than lethal” protection need to understand.

    • If there’s one silver lining that came out of my experiences with violence, it’s that they’ve disabused me of the self-delusions many women have that “it can’t happen to me” and “if I cooperate, it’ll be fine”. As scary as it can be to think about the reality of a violent attack, at least by thinking about it honestly we can prepare ourselves.

      Thanks for reading and for your comment!

  2. I love the article and thank you for giving insight from your real life experiences. I see a lot of people with the “it can’t happen to me” attitude, but little do they know.. it can.

    I wanted to throw my 2 cents out there about OCPepper Spray.

    There are manufactures that have really improved the deployment methods of OC Spray. Sabre, for example, has came out with a gel that handles really well in some directional wind and has just about eliminated cross contamination.

    I would much rather see an individual out there with a OC canister then to see them face the worlds evils completely unarmed. The biggest thing with any self-defense tool is if you are going to carry it, you better practice with it. There are training(or inert) OC canisters out there for purchase that you can practice with that are fairly inexpensive ($5 per canister). These canisters are just alcohol and a little detergent. They are safe you use on humans if you want to practice with a friend. Make sure they wear a face shield or safety glasses.

    With all the above out of the way, I would like to add that OC spray is a great tool to temporarily disable an attacker, however, I believe that it should be carried in conjunction with a firearm.

    And the most important thing about a violent encounter is for you to NEVER GIVE UP!!

    • Thanks for your perspective! I definitely agree with your “never give up” attitude.

      The big trouble I see with pepper spray is that bad guys can learn to keep fighting THROUGH the spray, just like the good guys do. If I happen to cross paths with a bad who has that skill, all I may succeed in doing by spraying him is to amp up his rage and level of violence. Most women are victims of what Rory Miller calls “asocial violence”, where the level of violence may already be high, and I’m dubious that ratcheting it up further still is helpful.

      Still, you’re absolutely right: Those that make the choice to carry pepper spray should absolutely train with it and practice with it. Personally, I think they should also do a training class that exposes students to the spray and teaches the skill of fighting through it, just in case.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Great article, as always. I’ve never even considered using any so-called less than lethal things for defense, for many of the reasons you describe here so well. Sadly, these are the only options for a lot of people stuck in places where true self defense weapons are either completely illegal or nearly impossible to carry.

    One of the most difficult things about teaching self defense is helping (especially, but not exclusively) women to overcome the conditioning to be passive or helpless. “Can’t I just shoot him in the foot or something?” is a far too common question from novices.

    When we go out to the range, I set up foot and hand sized targets around out standard silhouettes and I have them attempt to shoot just “in the foot” or the hand. Then we go over the whole thing about how “shooting just to wound” is a really bad idea, and might cost them their life.

    While the defensive tool is truly and impressively important, a positive attitude and determination to survive is going to make the difference every time. Having a weapon of any kind is more or less no help without the will and the skill to use it – as you’ve pointed out so often before. πŸ™‚

    • “One of the most difficult things about teaching self defense is helping (especially, but not exclusively) women to overcome the conditioning to be passive or helpless.” Indeed, and learning to overcome this conditioning, as well as the strong social pressure for women to “be nice”, is often a challenge indeed.

      Thanks for this – I always appreciate your comments!

  4. I’m a writer from Sequals, Italia just submitted this to a colleague who was running some research on this. And she actually bought me lunch simply because I stumbled upon it for her… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal… But anyway, thanks for taking some time to discuss this matter here on your blog.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Mom With a Gun does an excellent analysis of such tools, including the following snippets: There are two main problems I see with less-lethal weapons from an armed civilian self-defense standpoint. The first, of course, is that they may not end the threat. Cops and soldiers can learn to fight through pepper spray, and you bet the criminals can learn those skills too. Plus, the deployment of chemical sprays is dependent on the direction and strength of the wind, and it’s far from uncommon for the defending citizen (or cop) that deploys these weapons to catch some of the spray in her own face. […]

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