Is it Legal to Carry Pepper Spray in California?

By , Attorney · Santa Clara University School of Law

Pepper spray is a chemical that, when sprayed into the eyes or onto the face, causes severe pain, tearing, and, in some cases, temporary blindness. Also known as "Oleoresin Capsicum," "OC Gas," or "capsicum spray," pepper spray is usually carried in a small canister so it can be easily contained in a pocket or a purse. Pepper spray is regulated by the state of California in its rules concerning tear gas and tear gas weapons (Ca. Penal Code Sections 22810 and following).

Pepper Spray Effects and Use

Pepper spray is derived from chili plants, and, when sprayed into the face, causes people to immediately close their eyes, cough, and tear up. Pepper spray has also been known to cause tightening of the chest, mucus secretions, and other discomforts, all of which are considered to be largely temporary. The spray can cause severe discomfort for about half an hour, depending on the potency of the spray and the amount applied.

Pepper spray is commonly used by riot police when controlling rowdy crowds. Individuals carry it as a form of self defense, to be used on an assailant or an attacking dog. It can be purchased in a variety of locations, including online self-defense vendors.

Is Pepper Spray Legal in California?

Paradoxically, the use of pepper spray is illegal in war, because it is considered chemical warfare according to international statutes governing weapons of war. But it is legal when used by law enforcement or by a private individual in self-defense situations. Laws governing the use of pepper spray vary from state to state, with some states limiting its usage, potency, or the amount that can be carried at any given time. California regulates the possession and use in the following ways.

Self Defense Only

You may purchase, possess, and use pepper spray as long as you do so only for self-defense purposes. Interestingly, in California, "use" includes not just discharging the weapon, but displaying it in a threatening manner. Using it in non-self defense situations will subject you to a misdemeanor or felony charge, with a possible sentence of 16 months, two, or three years, a fine of up to $1,000, or both. It is no defense to a charge of improper use that the canister was empty or otherwise inoperable.

People Who May Not Possess Pepper Spray in California

California law prohibits several classes of people from buying, possessing, or using pepper spray:

  • people convicted of a felony or any assault crime, in California or any other state or in the federal system; and those convicted of misusing the spray (in non-self defense situations)
  • minors (except minors over 16 years old, who may purchase and possess pepper spray as long as their parent is present or gives written permission), and
  • those addicted to any narcotic drug.

Restrictions on Packaging

Pepper spray may not be sold in containers that hold more than 2.5 ounces of the chemical. Packages must inform users that the item may be used for self defense only; the manufacturer must include a useful shelf life date, usage and first aid instructions, and include an explanation of the legal consequences for illegal use.

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