Video: Pepper guns gain traction with rural agencies

It has been called “the squirt gun from hell,” even by lawmen who haven’t experienced its memorable burn.

Its chemical agent — a concentrated blast of pepper spray fired at a dizzying 405 mph — can disable and disorient an aggressor for 45 minutes or longer.

“This is potent enough to drop a bear,” said Darron Teeters, an instructor and regional director with JPX America, the Huntsville, Texas-based company pitching its patented pepper guns to law enforcement agencies across Louisiana. “One of these Louisiana people called it the ‘hot loogie.’ ”

Touted as a cheaper alternative to the stun gun, the JPX Pepper Gun is appearing on more and more police utility belts as another method of “less-lethal force” authorities can use to subdue unruly suspects. About 70 agencies in the state — mostly smaller, rural agencies — are using the devices, Teeters said, adding he expects that number to grow significantly in coming months.

Some law enforcement officials attending a training class Friday at the East Feliciana Parish Courthouse said pepper guns could eventually replace their stun guns, a shift they insist will lessen their civil liability.

“I’ve been reluctant to get the Taser ever since it came out because of some of the horror stories I’ve heard of people dying from them and officers maybe using them when they shouldn’t,” said West Feliciana Parish Sheriff J. Austin Daniel, who is equipping all of his front-line deputies with pepper guns. “You can shoot the pepper gun from as far as 25 feet and it’s a direct squirt, so chances are you’re only going to hit the person you’re aiming for.”

A number of Louisiana law enforcement agencies have investigated deaths in recent years occurring after police officers used a stun gun. Taser, for its part, has maintained that its products, when used properly, are safe and effective tools that prevent injury, citing a U.S. Department of Justice study that found there is “no clear evidence” the devices themselves cause death.

Taser stun guns are widely used by law enforcement authorities. The gun fires prongs that deliver an electrical charge, immobilizing the person.

Still, several officers were critical of stun guns at Friday’s session, saying pepper guns offer a safer alternative for less than half the price. Pepper guns cost about $340; the cartridges, which contain two shots, are about $33.

“We’re going to these guns because there’s less liability,” said Assistant Police Chief Ned Davis Jr. of the Clinton Police Department, which has purchased four pepper guns but may eventually equip all 25 of its officers with the device.

“You have to understand a lot of people are not really affected by the Taser,” Davis said. “If you don’t get both of the prongs in correctly, it’s not going to work.”

Like stun guns, the pepper gun resembles a pistol and comes with an optional laser sight. It uses blank cartridges and a “propulsion technology” that creates pressure to push out Oleoresin Capsicum — pepper spray — at 590 feet per second.

“What happens is the striker on the back of the pistol itself strikes the back of the cap where the firing pin is, and there’s a plunger inside that pushes out the OC,” said Ron Teeters, president of JPX America.

A person struck with the gooey, crimson red substance experiences an extreme burning sensation and involuntary closing of the eyes. “The Scoville heat unit of a jalapeno pepper is 8,000,” Ron Teeters said. “This is 400,000.”

JPX representatives stress to law enforcement authorities that the pepper guns must be fired at a minimum distance of 5 feet away; a direct shot from any closer could cause serious injury, they warned.

Officers are trained to aim for the nose for maximum effect. But despite the high velocity with which the pepper spray is delivered, officials said, the blast itself is not painful when it lands on someone’s face.

Drew Erickson, a JPX instructor, likened the sensation to walking into a piece of Saran wrap spread across a door frame.

“The main concern is always whether it hurts,” he told the class of officers. “We can assure you there is no kinetic impact. It is not damaging to your vision.”

Law enforcement officials noted an important difference between traditional pepper spray and pepper guns. A drawback to aerosol pepper spray, they said, is the inadvertent “cross-contamination,” or affecting more people than intended.

“When you spray those, you risk it coming back on you if the wind is blowing in a certain direction, and if you spray it in a room, you can contaminate the whole room,” Daniel said.

Pepper guns, meanwhile, deliver a blast designed only to affect the target. They feature a self-cleaning mechanism that burns off residual chemicals, so the officer pulling the trigger won’t be affected.

“It gets what you’re aiming for, and you don’t have to worry about everyone else around you,” said Sgt. Kevin Garig of the East Feliciana Parish Sheriff’s Office, which may eventually phase out its stun guns if pepper guns prove effective.

Marjorie R. Esman, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, cautioned that pepper guns may easily be misused, calling them “litigation waiting to happen.” She raised concerns that a law enforcement officer, in the heat of an arrest, might fire the pepper gun at close range, causing serious injury.

“A Taser is a useful tool. The problem is when they’re misused, and I think this is subject to exactly the same risk,” Esman said in a telephone interview. “It seems to me that there’s a significant risk of harm from this as well.”