Pepper spray is a lacrimator (a substance that induces tears) used for self-defense to avoid a potential threat. It causes immediate symptoms, such as irritated skin, eyes and mucous membranes.
Pepper spray is made from oleoresin capsicum, the substance that adds heat to chili peppers. With a few exceptions, pepper spray is legal to purchase and carry in Pennsylvania, but there are laws as to how a person can use it.
Pennsylvania considers pepper spray to be a chemical weapon. Mace is like pepper spray, but it is chemical in nature and more like tear gas.
What Is Pepper Spray?
Pepper spray is a self-defense device that temporarily stops a threat of harm from another person, allowing the user to escape.
Known as a lacrimator, it stimulates tear production. Pepper spray’s main component is oleoresin capsicum, an oil from the Capsicum genus of plants. This is what makes hot peppers spicy, but pepper spray has a higher concentration of oleoresin capsicum than actual peppers do.
The higher pepper spray’s oleoresin capsicum concentration, the longer and more intense are its effects. Pennsylvanians can buy pepper spray as a self-defense tool, but there are some restrictions on the legality of where and how they can use it.
Effects of Pepper Spray
When someone uses pepper spray, its effects can last from a few minutes to a few hours and can be quite intense. Pepper spray irritates the skin, eyes and mucous membranes.
Someone hit with pepper spray can experience red and watery eyes, difficulty opening their eyes, corneal abrasions and light sensitivity. They can also suffer skin pain, redness, blisters, itching and swelling.
Inhaling pepper spray causes throat and nasal irritation, coughing, runny nose and difficulty breathing. A person hit with pepper spray who has COPD or asthma may experience more severe respiratory effects.
Is Pepper Spray a Weapon in Pennsylvania?
Pennsylvania law defines a weapon as an "device, instrument or object capable of threatening or inflicting bodily harm that is designed for that express purpose."
Weapons in Pennsylvania include:
- Any loaded or unloaded firearm, shotgun or rifle.
- Knives and other cutting instruments or tools.
- Chemical agents, such as pepper spray and mace.
- Laser pointers.
- Stun guns and tasers.
- Explosive or incendiary devices.
- Other objects, instruments or tools used to inflict serious bodily harm to others.
The legal definition of weapon in Pennsylvania also includes replicas, toys or look-alike weapons.
Is the Use of Pepper Spray Legal in Pennsylvania?
The purchase and possession of pepper spray is legal in Pennsylvania, and individuals don't need a license to carry it. Felons cannot carry pepper spray, as it is considered a weapon.
Of course, as in every state, there are certain buildings and areas where individuals cannot carry any weapons. Since pepper is classified as a weapon, it cannot be brought into government buildings and schools.
Flying With Pepper Spray
People who carry pepper spray cannot carry it onto the cabin of a commercial plane. But, according to TSA guidelines, they can place it in checked baggage if it has a safety mechanism that will prevent it from discharging, and it contains less than 2 percent by mass of tear gas (CS or CN.)
A person who brings pepper spray onto an airplane will have it confiscated and can face felony charges and a fine of up to $25,000.
Criminal Charges and Pepper Spray Use
Using pepper spray as a means of defense is perfectly legal in Pennsylvania, but according to 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2701, a person using pepper spray knowingly or recklessly to cause or attempt to cause another individual bodily harm may face a misdemeanor assault charge.
If the victim is a firefighter, a police officer, a probation officer or other law enforcement personnel, the user could face aggravated assault felony charges under 18 Pa.C.S. Section 2702.
Carrying a Stun Gun or Taser in Pennsylvania
Additional weapons used for self-defense are stun guns and tasers, which can also be legally carried in Pennsylvania. A stun gun requires direct contact, and a taser is shot from a distance, but both weapons transmit electrical current. A person who cannot legally own or possess a firearm in Pennsylvania cannot own a stun gun, including those who:
- Have felony or other criminal convictions, such as domestic violence or DUIs.
- Have a domestic violence protection order against them requiring them to relinquish their weapons.
- Were found by a court to be incompetent or who were involuntarily committed to a psychiatric institution.
Individuals in Pennsylvania can own or carry a stun gun or taser without a permit, but both weapons can be used only for self-defense. Using it for another purpose is a misdemeanor, and using it to commit a felony is, in itself, a felony.
- Medical News Today: What Is Pepper Spray, and Is It Dangerous?
- PCCD.gov: Weapons FAQ's
- TSA.gov: Pepper Spray
- Pennsylvania Legislature: Chapter 27 Assault
- Pennsylvania Legislature: Section 2702 Aggravated Assault
- Find Law: Pennsylvania Statutes Section 908.1 Use or Possession of Electric or Electronic Incapacitation Device
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.