Lethal Force Vs Pepper Spray: Is There Ever A Justification?

Gun News

Is lethal force versus pepper spray ever warranted? It depends on more than if you face someone wielding the less-than-lethal option.

On October 11, 2020, 30-year-old Matthew Dolloff, a Navy veteran who was ostensibly working as a private security guard for a Denver news channel, shot and killed 49-year-old Lee Keltner, who was discharging a riot control canister toward him when Dolloff fired one shot, striking Keltner in the head, killing him. Dolloff was arrested at the scene and later charged with murder.

So, when is it justifiable to use deadly force against someone threatening or attacking with pepper spray?

Pepper spray at the ready. Does this require a lethal response? It depends. Photo: Wikipedia

Pepper spray is seen as a non-lethal use of force option, as it has developed from police use of force tool in the early ’90s to the role it has now, both on police belts and in armed citizens’ pockets and cars. It’s a meaningful option for most everyone who is faced with a possible criminal attack, but the criminal attack doesn’t rise to the level of using deadly force.

Pepper spray, when applied correctly to the face, will cause the eyes to shut and become inflamed, affect the mucus membranes that it comes in contact with and, if inhaled, cause shortness of breath and coughing. For most everyone, it acts within a second or two of exposure and shuts the person down long enough to either be taken into custody (if a law enforcement situation) or for the armed citizen to escape the criminal attack.

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Pepper Spray Nuances

But most armed police also consider that if they’re threatened with attack by pepper spray, it’d be an option for them to use deadly force to prevent the attack. Why? Because of the fact that the law enforcement officer has a gun and would likely be disarmed and possibly killed.


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The vast majority of police officers will be exposed to the effects of pepper spray in the police academy, and for us old-timers, we took a hit of pepper spray during an in-service training day. I took my first hit of pepper spray in a pepper spray instructor course, taught by the late-great police trainer, Ed Nowicki. I’ve taken several additional exposures in subsequent instructor certification courses and have been contaminated numerous times while teaching pepper spray classes. I know what it does to me, as do most law enforcement officers.

Do you know what it does to you? If a person uses deadly force to stop someone from attacking with pepper spray, they had better know exactly how their body responds to the spray, and whether or not they could mount a successful defense of a gun grab attempt. They’ll have to articulate the circumstances surrounding the use of deadly force, whether or not that was a police officer or a private citizen.

All use of force when defending life needs to be commensurate with the amount of force being used in the attack. Just facing a person threatening to spray you doesn’t warrant shooting them, but instead, there must be articulated facts to go along with the pepper spray that’d lead a reasonable person to agree it was necessary to kill the attacker.

Was the pepper spray attacker threatening to disarm and kill the defender? Did the attacker even know the defender had a gun? Was he warned not to use pepper spray, as the defender would be forced to shoot and kill if he was sprayed with pepper spray? Was there a size disparity sufficient to render a physical defense against a gun grab unlikely to be successful, given the defender would be affected by the spray? Was there more than one attacker preparing to attack the defender?

Then, does the defender know enough about pepper spray to understand the delivery system being used against him? Was the defender being threatened with a puny stream type of spray, as commonly found on key rings after being touted as an effective self-defense spray? Or, was he being threatened with a riot control fogger delivery system that’s likely to contaminate everything and everybody within a 30-foot circle?

After all that, was there any tactical moves the defender could’ve made to avoid being sprayed, such as turning around and running away?

These questions and concerns should be addressed in a competent pepper spray training course. If you carry pepper spray as a self-defense tool, you should have the training. And if you carry a gun along with spray, or even if you carry a gun without carrying pepper spray, training to understand the effects of pepper spray against you would be a very nice thing to have if you need to justify shooting someone who was threatening to spray you, disarm you and kill you.

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Gun Digest the Magazine.

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