1:57 PM EDT, June 27, 2008
With a push of a button, Carol Jara is ready to zap an attacker with her new stun gun.
She considered getting a handgun, but decided against it.
"I don't feel that comfortable thinking that I could kill someone," said Jara, 26, who lives in Miami and works as a graphic designer in Broward County.
Local gun shop owners say the number of people coming in looking for "less lethal" self-defense options such as pepper sprays and electric stun guns is on the rise. Whether out of fear or for personal beliefs, many people aren't comfortable carrying guns.
"They want something in the middle. A big part of our society is that way," said Jeff Dillard, president of National Law Enforcement Distributors in Davie. "There's not a day that goes by when we don't have four or five customers come in here discussing this."
Choosing the right item isn't easy.
In Florida, you can carry two different types of weapons without a permit: pepper sprays and stun guns, including the Taser.
Pepper spray is the cheapest less-lethal item, starting at around $10 for a canister small enough to keep on a key chain. Containers can also be disguised as pens, pagers, lipstick and hand-held fitness weights. Made up of chemicals derived from chili peppers ("OC" spray) or tear gas ("CS" spray), pepper spray causes burning, stinging eyes and coughing. Dillard recommends pepper spray because the effects are lasting. When shot directly into the face and eyes, it will leave the attacker in pain for up to an hour if untreated.
"Whatever I came to do, that's no longer on my mind," Dillard said. "I'm going to be screaming and yelling and rubbing my eyes and in pain."
There are drawbacks. If you fire it into the wind, you may end up with a face full of your own pepper spray.
Some people have been known to fight through the pain of pepper spray, said Robert J. Leitner, chief operating officer of Tactical Products Group in Delray Beach. He prefers stun guns for self-defense.
Stun guns are small, electronic devices that zap assailants, causing pain and locking up their muscles. Stun guns come in different shapes and styles and cost about $20 and up, with most putting out at least 50,000 volts of electricity.
"You only need a second or two to touch the assailant and it also has a powerful deterrent," Leitner said. "In our experience, criminals fear them more than pepper sprays."
One of the devices looks like a pink MP3 player. When a button is pushed, blue sparks arc from two prongs with a startling crackle.
Dillard said the downside of stun guns is that they require direct contact with an attacker, and they don't have a lasting effect like pepper spray does.
You could also be zapped if the device were turned on you in a struggle.
Tasers are the newest less-lethal items on the market. Unlike a traditional stun gun, the Taser shoots two barbed probes up to 15 feet to deliver a 30-second, 50,000 volt zap. They're also the most expensive, starting at $299 for a base model. Police have used them for years to subdue unruly and combative suspects. Since 2006, civilians in Florida have been able to carry Tasers without a concealed weapons permit.
Steve Tuttle, spokesman for the Arizona-based Taser International, said the Taser has none of the shortcomings of pepper sprays and traditional stun guns. You can shoot the Taser from a distance, then drop it and run away. The device will continue to shock the attacker, even when you take your finger off of the button.
"I don't want to get one foot away from them and try to apply something to them directly," Tuttle said. "Place it on the ground, let it do the work for you and get to safety."
Dillard recommends against civilians buying Tasers., like other stun guns. He said recovery from a Taser is immediate after the 30 seconds of zapping.
"What are you going to do when those 30 seconds are up?" he said.
And what if you miss? Both of the Taser's barbed probes must hit a person's body or clothing for it to work. Tuttle said if that happens, you can also use the device's handset as a contact stun gun.
Stun guns and pepper spray can be found in local gun stores. Some convenience stores, department stores and outdoor stores also carry pepper spray.
These items are designed to stop attackers without killing them, but there have been rare instances where such devices proved deadly. If you purchase one, you should treat it like a firearm: realize that it is a weapon and make sure to keep it far from kids' reach.
Dillard also warned against storing your pepper spray inside a car. He said Florida's heat can weaken the seals on canisters, and it can take up to six hours to air out your car out if it leaks.
Cossetty Denbow, general manger of National Law Enforcement Distributors, said it would also be good to take a self-defense class, just in case.
"Because with every less-lethal item, there's always the caveat that it might not work," she said.