Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Police concerned over civilian pepper guns

By Jane Prendergast
The Cincinnati Enquirer

SYCAMORE TWP. - Outside Kenwood Towne Centre on Saturday, shoppers will find a pepperball gun company pitching its weapons as the latest thing in home protection.

They look enough like real handguns to have police officers concerned. But PepperBall Technologies Inc. says citizens are clamoring for ways to feel safer, and that these weapons are the newest wave in self-protection without killing anyone.

And the company will let the curious test-fire the guns outside the Parisian store this weekend as part of the company's first day of its new sales pitch to ordinary citizens.

"There's a gap between when you lock your door and when you shoot someone," said Mike Villines, spokesman for the San Diego company. "In between there, people have different security needs. And we can fill them."

The pepperball gun - called "The Neutralizer" - fires hard plastic projectiles that burst on impact. The balls are filled with powder that irritates the victim's eyes, nose and throat.

The company chose Cincinnati to launch its marketing campaign after extensive demographic research - including percentage of gun owners and non-gun owners, Villines said. Another crucial factor: A lawsuit challenging Ohio's ban on concealed weapons is pending before the Ohio Supreme Court.

The company, he said, thinks that makes Greater Cincinnatians more aware of the gun issue in general.

Kenwood often gets requests from companies to use the mall for demonstrations, said Dave Casper, senior marketing manager

PepperBall Technologies, he said, described its gun as "kind of like a paintball gun," Casper said, except that on Saturday it will shoot pellets of baby powder at a target.

"It's kind of an interactive experience," Casper said. "And they're positioning this as kind of a family event. So it's going to be fun."

Cincinnati police trainers and officials didn't want to comment Tuesday. Lt. Kurt Byrd, department spokesman, planned to discuss the issue at this morning'scommand staff meeting before discussing the department's position on the nonlethal weapons.

But officers - who described The Neutralizer as looking similar to a 9mm semiautomatic pistol with a scope on top - said arming the public with anything that looks like a real gun can be dangerous. Pointing a pepperball gun at a burglar, for example, could prompt the burglar to respond with a weapon that fires real bullets.

Company officials insist there are differences between their weapon and a real gun, including that the person shooting it doesn't feel it recoil, said Monte Scott, client relations manager.

"Our primary focus here is home protection," he said. "It's not for taking outside or in your car."

And if a homeowner were to use one, he said, the results wouldn't be fatal.

Cincinnati police have had pepperball guns for about 18 months, but they're not in every cruiser yet. Officers have fired them three times in just over a week, each time at mentally ill people who were then taken for psychiatric evaluation.


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