So that mean-looking AK-47 you had your eye on is suddenly hard to get. Try another kind of self-defense weapon, advises the South Pasadena Police Department. It works fast, it disables an assailant without killing or maiming and it fits neatly into purse or pocket.
What is it? It's tear gas, the bodyguard in an aerosol can.
About 30 people went to the South Pasadena City Council chambers one recent night to learn about the user-friendly, crystalline substance, which achieved fame (and some notoriety) when police departments started using it in the 1960s to help quell civil disturbances.
California residents have been allowed to use tear gas spray since 1977, provided users go through a state-certified, two-hour training program and carry a state certificate.
The attendees, all but three of them women, watched a videotape, talked about when it was appropriate to use their aerosol cans, took "target practice" and then--in a tearful climax to the evening--took a whiff of the gas.
"You can't believe in a product until you know it works," said Art Chance, one of a pair of retired sheriff's deputies who run classes on tear gas for the state-funded La Puente Valley Regional Occupation Program.
"Oh, gosh, it does burn," said Leticia Petot, a nurse from Alhambra, who had dutifully followed former Los Angeles County Sheriff's Deputy Van Bogardus out to the City Hall courtyard and lined up to have some tear gas dabbed under her eye with a cotton swab.
Standing near Petot, fellow samplers looked stunned and teary-eyed at each other, fanned their faces, sneezed or rushed into restrooms to wash the stuff away.
Petot compared the sensation to hot chili. Nurse Paula Lopez said it was more like an abrasion.
"It feels like when you skinned your knee on the ground when you were a kid," said Lopez, pointing to a red spot on her cheekbone.
But for Mailan Nguyen, it was more like a sudden terrifying loss of sight.
"I thought I was blind," said the Cal State Los Angeles marketing student, her face still wet from tears and tap water. "I guess my eyes are very sensitive. I can't even use eyeliner."
"It's a sad commentary on survival," said Jo Ann Semon, a Los Angeles Unified School District employee who has lived in South Pasadena for six years.
Things are changing, said some, even in South Pasadena, whose residents pride themselves on the city's easygoing, small-town atmosphere.
Helen Simmons, a former City Council member who took the class, remembered when she moved to the city more than 25 years ago.
"I used to leave my keys in the car, so I was ready to roll when I got out the door in the morning," said Simmons, who worked as a sheriff's deputy for 14 years. "I used to have to be at the Hall of Justice at 7 in the morning. In the mad rush, you didn't want to have to look for your keys."
But major crimes--especially auto thefts--are on the upswing in the little city. Last year, there was a murder, three reported rapes and 30 aggravated assaults (up from no murders, no reported rapes and 24 assaults in 1987). Auto thefts catapulted from 134 to 210.
"There's really no city that's safe any more," Semon said. "I believe in the old Boy Scout adage, 'Be prepared.' "