Wary people would never think of leaving home without them

DEFENSE MECHANISMS

November 19, 1993|By Mary Corey | Mary Corey,Crime prevention experts, gun store owners, manufacturersStaff Writer

When Kay Hughes goes to the mall, she makes sure to take two things along: her shopping list and her self-defense spray.

The small can of pepper-laced liquid also goes with her on hiking trails, to the office, even to the mailbox just a few steps from her front door.

"I don't leave home without it," says Ms. Hughes, 43, an electrical inspector who works in Towson. "Maybe I'm paranoid, but I'm determined not to be a victim."

She and millions like her are turning personal-safety products into a multimillion-dollar industry. With violent crime on the rise and fear of it one of the nation's hottest topics, nearly any product that promises protection -- whether it's a spray or siren -- is finding a place on store shelves. From the simple schoolyard whistle that's been renamed an "emergency device" to the newfangled personal alarm with a bulletproof-like casing, there are more ways than ever to arm yourself against an attacker.

But they come with a warning label: Crime prevention experts complain that these products offer a false sense of security, particularly because many buyers don't take courses -- or even practice -- using the devices. They say manufacturers and retailers often use scare tactics to sell their wares, which can cost as much as $100. And their popularity has renewed the debate over whether resisting during a crime will prevent or provoke violence.

"People are looking for that middle ground, somewhere between being defenseless and carrying a gun," says Officer Cary Koch, crime prevention coordinator for the Cockeysville Precinct of the Baltimore County Police Department. "They're coming to realize that they're spending hundreds or thousands to alarm their houses but many of them don't have any means of protection when they're outside."

Recently, they've begun investing in personal protection as well. Last year, sales reached nearly $7 million for Mace Security International, an industry leader that makes 10 different consumer safety products. In 1988, the Vermont-based company's sales hovered below $1 million, according to spokeswoman Kelly Gannon.

What's equally surprising is where these products are now sold. A few years ago, if you wanted to buy one, you had to visit a gun store or sporting goods shop. Today, sprays and sirens are sold in supermarkets, pharmacies and discount stores.

"About 75 percent of our carriers are women," says Ms. Gannon. "We had to get into places where women would buy them. Now they go in [a store] and get their toothpaste, perfume, makeup and Mace."

Young feel vulnerable

The young appear to feel the most vulnerable, with 18- to-35-year-olds responsible for nearly half of all purchases, says Ms. Gannon. Most often, the typical buyer works in a professional job and lives in a mid-Atlantic state. Overall, the devices cost between $3.50 and $100, with most falling in the $10-$40 range.

This is the season when the most purchases are made. More than 40 percent of all Mace company products are sold in the last quarter, says Ms. Gannon. With crime increasing during the holidays, people buy now to be more vigilant against attacks and give the products as gifts.

"Some bosses are coming in buying cases [of pepper spray] for their employees," says Sanford Abrams, sales representative at Valley Gun Shop in Parkville.

In terms of popularity, sprays with a derivative of cayenne pepper are top sellers at area gun stores. When used against an attacker, they cause an instant swelling of the mucous membranes around the eyes, nose and mouth, leaving the person disoriented for roughly 30 minutes. To be effective, the two people must be within 12 feet of each other. The chief drawback is that if taken away, they can be used against the victim.

"If you're accosted by someone with a knife or gun, and you attempt to use pepper spray against that person, that may be the reason you wind up getting shot or stabbed. People have to be careful that . . . whatever device they're using isn't going to cause a person to commit a greater act of violence. Generally the less resistance, the less likely you are to get hurt," says Sgt. Stephen R. Doarnberger, Baltimore County police spokesman.

Pepper sprays have killed

Pepper sprays can do more than hurt. So far, there have been 22 pepper spray-related deaths across the country, mostly involving police struggles, says Wayne Perry, owner of Fight Back Self Defense, a New York-based business that offers safety workshops across the country.

Mr. Perry, who has been sprayed by 36 different products in his research, recommends the combination pepper spray and tear gas devices now on the market.

Several months ago, he had his wife spray him with one.

"I couldn't count to two," he says. "My eyes closed. There was this intense burning in my nose and skin. It feels like somebody poured hydrochloric acid on you."

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