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RELUCTANT NOVICE

Cayenne-Do Spirit of Self-Defense : Pepper spray can incapacitate an assailant. But you must be certified to legally possess and use it--and that's where the class comes in.

November 18, 1994|REBECCA HOWARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Rebecca Howard writes regularly for The Times

CHATSWORTH — Watch out. I am licensed to spray.

You'd probably be more impressed if I said I had a black belt in karate or could pick a gnat off my wall with a .22 pistol. But I took an easier route toward self-defense through a three-hour course legally certifying me in pepper spray training. I am now ready to take on any attacker, spraying him as I would a giant cockroach with a blast from my own special can of Raid!

I've only had a few incidents where I've truly felt in danger. A few years back, my purse was snatched near the arch in St. Louis while I was on a trip.

In the area where I live, I was accosted one night by an intoxicated man at a fast-food restaurant. I kept moving from table to table, and each time, he followed me. Finally, when I got up to tell the manager, the man left the restaurant. I had to watch him drive off to believe I would be safe in leaving the place myself.

Men and women are both victims of attacks, I know. But I believe women are much more vulnerable to such incidents. It makes me angry that we have to live in fear like other prey in the animal world, ever on the alert. It's become instinctual, especially in Los Angeles, to be on guard for potential danger. And so, with about 19 others, I attended a class at the Northridge Pistol and Rifle Range.

Pepper spray became accessible to citizens in March, and can be found everywhere, from convenience stores to sporting-goods stores. What most people need to realize, however, is that pepper spray is illegal to possess and use unless you have been certified and have the legally authorized canister, which is yellow.

After our instructor, a former state police officer, told us this, a woman meekly turned in an unopened package containing a red canister of pepper spray. "I don't want to get convicted of a felony," she said demurely.

So many people were interested in learning how to use pepper spray that this course, offered through Learning Tree University in Chatsworth, was expanded to accommodate two sessions of trainees.

Pepper spray is a mixture of carbonated water, its propellant, and derivatives of peppers such as cayenne. It must be sprayed into the face of an attacker, from three to 10 feet away, to be most effective. Once it hits the attacker's eyes, the mucous membranes are affected almost immediately: The eyes swell shut; the throat constricts, and the assailant drops to the ground in intense pain, usually incapacitated for about 40 minutes.

In his police training, our instructor was subjected to pepper spray and said dryly, "It doesn't feel great." His description of how his eyes swelled up was met with a loud, "Ewwwwww!" by one student. Even when he'd merely gone close to the spray one time, our instructor said, he'd been affected. The spicy smell of the weapon made him crave Mexican food all evening, he said.

The class consisted of discussion and two videos, one about tear gas and pepper spray training, the other about gun safety, I guess in case any of us wanted to go a step further.

We all laughed at certain moments in the tear gas and pepper spray video, particularly the part about misuse of pepper spray. Scenes depicted the wrong reasons to take aim: A wife blasts her husband with spray during an argument; a driver shoots a stream of pepper spray on a man who stole her parking space; another woman douses a clerk after she feels she's been shortchanged.

But some scenes portraying real attacks and demonstrations of use were effective, especially with the "Jaws" type of background music played while a man crept up on his female victim.

The real excitement came when we actually got to do some spraying. As I stepped up for my turn, trigger-happy, I aimed at the target. To get anything to squirt from the canister, you really have to press down hard, but I managed to make an accurate hit in the eye area of the target three times, which was the requirement to be certified. Yet I felt more like I was watering daffodils than maiming an assailant. It was, after all, only water we were practicing with.

As we took turns spraying from the canister at the cardboard silhouette of a man, the target became so soggy from saturation, it collapsed in the middle. "You killed him!" one woman jokingly yelled out.

Some people had trouble finding the lever to release the spray; some had difficulty hitting the target in the eye area. One woman smoked the target in the stomach, which would be futile in a real situation. Our instructor had extended an invitation to come back and practice anytime we wanted. Some people needed to.

One woman, who attended the class with her husband and son, said she would not have come, but her "son insisted on it."

"My son is in college, and he can't be with us all the time. He thought it would be a good idea," she said.

Though we had learned a new way to arm ourselves, our instructor warned us not to have a false sense of security. He said we should still try to be more aware and cautious on the streets, in parking lots and other areas. And he encouraged pepper spray as a defensive mechanism, not an offensive one.

"You're not going to go out and stop crime in your neighborhood with pepper spray or become a vigilante," he added.

I may walk a little more bravely into the night, but I'll never feel completely safe, even though I have a pink card giving me the legal right to carry my little yellow canisters full of cayenne.

I pray I never have to use them.

WHERE AND WHEN

What: Pepper spray training class.

Location: Learning Tree University, 20920 Knapp St., Chatsworth.

Hours: 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Price: $32 to enroll, plus $20 for materials payable in class.

Call: (818) 882-5599.

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