Q&A: What are California’s laws regarding pepper spray ownership and use?

-Rita Slayton of Hemet recently asked: Trevor, what are the California laws on pepper spray?

-Jim Cantor of Perris recently asked: What exactly is pepper spray and how does it work?

-Steve asked via e-mail: Is it true in CA that you can legally possess a canister of pepper spray in excess of 2.5 oz. if it is being used for protection against animals (i.e, bears)?



It is legal for most adults to carry pepper spray and use it as a way of protecting themselves and other potential victims against attackers. There are some exceptions to that rule and there are specifications about the type and amount of pepper spray a citizen can legally possess and carry.

Pepper_Spray_In_ActionWhile pepper spray may never legally be used as a means of attacking someone, having it as a means of self-defense and personal protection is like having insurance. As I’ve always taught my children, I’d rather have it and not need it, than need it and not have it. The simple fact is, pepper spray can provide the user with a certain level of protection before help can arrive. It can also buy crucial seconds to give the user a potential for an opportunity to flee from the attacker.

Pepper spray is not only used for personal self-defense against human attackers, it is also very effective in self-defense against dogs and bears. Its inflammatory effects cause the eyes to close almost immediately, temporarily taking away vision. This temporary blindness allows the user to have a better opportunity to go on the offensive or to escape.

Some exceptions to the rule for those adults who may not own or possess pepper spray are anyone who has been convicted of a felony, any crime involving an assault, anyone who is addicted to any narcotic, or anyone who has already been convicted of misuse of tear gas.

pepper-sprayCalifornia laws do not require a license or permit to carry pepper spray. However, the State of California does regulate the size and/or weight of the defense spray products the average citizen can buy and carry. The legal container size must be equal to or less than 2.5 ounces.

Bear spray is legal to own in California and the canisters can contain more than 2.5 ounces if the company that makes it registers it with the State as a pesticide. However, using bear spray on humans is illegal. While it works the same way, having a canister in any amount greater than 2.5 ounces for use other than the way it was intended is a crime.

The law also specifies that in CA legal pepper spray must not expel the gas by any method other than an aerosol spray.

Also, it is illegal to sell or furnish any tear gas or tear gas weapon to a minor. It is also unlawful for a minor under 14 years old to purchase, possess, or use pepper spray of any kind. However, juveniles 14 years and older may possess pepper spray with their parent’s permission.

What is Pepper Spray and how does it work?

Pepper spray, also known as OC spray – from oleoresin capsicum – is a chemical compound that irritates a person’s eyes, causes tears, pain, and temporary blindness. The active ingredient in pepper spray is capsaicin, which is a chemical derived from the fruit of capsicum plants, including chilis.

Some pepper sprays have die in them so the attacker can later be identified.

Some pepper sprays have die in them so the attacker can later be identified.

All military personnel and law enforcement officers, including those who work in patrol, corrections, reserves, court services, juvenile explorer scouts, some volunteers, security guards and anyone else in an official capacity who carries pepper spray in the course of their duty is required to be trained in pepper spray use.

The training includes being sprayed directly in the face with the painful spray. The primary reason is so these officials can articulate its effects later when testifying in court.

According to manufacturers, the effects of pepper spray can last as long as 45 minutes in some cases.

In my own personal experience, the first time I got sprayed I did the funky chicken dance while bobbing for invisible apples – repeatedly dunking my head in a water-filled bucket for what I later (honestly) estimated to be between 45 to 60 minutes.

This officer shows the effects of the pepper spray one hour after bring used..

This officer shows the effects of the pepper spray one hour after being sprayed.

In reality, the effects lasted on me for about 15-25 minutes, at most. But that is indicative of how much it hurt. I literally lost track of time I was in so much pain.

That being said, I have known and personally witnessed some people, usually those used to eating very spicy foods – especially chilis – on a regular basis, take multiple direct hits to the face with no effect whatsoever. So, like any self-defense weapon, it is not 100% foolproof but it is far better than having nothing.

Let me tell you, as a former sheriff’s investigator, getting pepper sprayed, whether during training or by catching an accidental burst from a well-meaning but poorly aiming fellow law enforcement officer in the heat of a violent scuffle is no fun whatsoever. As in, it can be an absolutely terrible experience. Especially if you happen to be wearing contacts.

Unfortunately, just like any weapon, whether considered “lethal” or “less lethal,” pepper spray is entirely indiscriminate in who it hurts. Once pepper spray has been dispersed into the air – especially if used inside a closed building or room – within moments it is going to be affecting every person still unfortunate enough to be in the area.


Keychain pepper sprays are much smaller than average pepper sprays canisters, but can be carried on a keychain or purse and come in a wide variety of colors and styles.

That would be the only real drawback in my opinion and that is the caution I have given to any of our friends, family, adult children or any of the countless others we have ever given them away to.

One year we bought a bulk of keychain pepper sprays and gave them out to everyone we knew for Christmas. For as little as $6 to $10 per canister, it makes for an inexpensive gift that could literally save a life.

Coincidentally – and on a slightly different subject – another fantastic gift my wife and I have bought in previous years and given out as everything from Christmas gifts to birthday gifts to “just because” gifts, are portable alcohol breathalyzers. Priced as low as $5, when you consider the average first DUI case will cost a minimum of $3,000 to $5,000 to fight or have to pay fines for, not to mention potentially saving one or more lives, it has an amazing return on investment.

Starting at just $5, a personal Blood Alcohol Content Breathalyzer can be an invaluable tool that could save thousands of dollars in legal bills as well as the lives of other motorists.

Choosing the pepper spray that works best for you

Pepper-Spray-GelSome different types of pepper spray include pepper spray gel, pepper sprays with colored dyes in them, key chain pepper sprays, pepper spray foggers, and more.

Pepper Spray Gel is unlike other pepper sprays in that it comes out in the form of a sticky gel. Once it is sprayed into an attacker’s face the gel sticks like thick, sticky glue. The more the sprayed person rubs their face and eyes, the more intense the pain and stickiness become.

pepperspraystore-combo-53f4846ac5e15421Ink-dye pepper sprays not only mark the sprayed person with a heavy – and easy to spot dye – they are also made with a UV marking dye. So even if the attacker tries to wash off the dye, they can still be identified with a standard UV light.

Key chain pepper sprays are exactly what they sound like. They are usually much smaller and connect directly to your key chain or purse, so they are always readily available at a moments notice.

Spray foggers work by creating a virtual wall of pepper fog that an attacker would have to go through to continue advancing and/or attacking. The molecules are delivered in a dense fog pattern rather than a solid stream. This makes it easier for the user as they do not even have to aim at an attacker’s face for the product to be effective.

pepper-spray-made-in-home-810x555Most other pepper sprays can shoot a stream between 7 to 15 feet. When first purchased, the new pepper spray should be tested on a tree or other outdoor target, away from other people or open windows, so the user will have a general idea what the spray’s range is and what the aim is like. Some shoot very straight some don’t. Some shoot in a directed stream, others disperse in a fog-like mist.

The image below shows a typical example of the difference between a “stream based” versus a “fogger based” pepper spray and how the two different styles spread their patterns after dispersal.

It is best to know in advance how your pepper spray dispenser works before you need to find out in an emergency. It is also important to occasionally shake your canister of pepper spray to keep the contents mixed and ready for use.


If you want to do more research on pepper sprays, I would suggest this site.

By the letter of the law:


Section 12403.7. (Amended by Stats. 1997, Ch. 17, Sec. 116.)
Cited as: Cal. Penal Code §12403.7.

Notwithstanding any other law, any person may purchase, possess, or use tear gas and tear gas weapons for the projection or release of tear gas if the tear gas and tear gas weapons are used solely for self-defense purposes, subject to the following requirements:

(a)No person convicted of a felony or any crime involving an assault under the laws of the United States, the State of California, or any other state, government, or country or convicted of misuse of tear gas under subdivision (g) shall purchase, possess, or use tear gas or tear gas weapons.

(b)No person who is addicted to any narcotic drug shall purchase, possess, or use tear gas or tear gas weapons.

(c)No person shall sell or furnish any tear gas or tear gas weapon to a minor.

(d)No person who is a minor shall purchase, possess, or use tear gas or tear gas weapons.

(e)(1)No person shall purchase, possess, or use any tear gas weapon that expels a projectile, or that expels the tear gas by any method other than an aerosol spray, or that contains more than 2.5 ounces net weight of aerosol spray.

(2)Every tear gas container and tear gas weapon that may be lawfully purchased, possessed, and used pursuant to this section shall have a label that states: “WARNING: The use of this substance or device for any purpose other than self-defense is a crime under the law. The contents are dangerous—use with care.”

(3)After January 1, 1984, every tear gas container and tear gas weapon that may be lawfully purchased, possessed, and used pursuant to this section shall have a label that discloses the date on which the useful life of the tear gas weapon expires.

(4)Every tear gas container and tear gas weapon that may be lawfully purchased pursuant to this section shall be accompanied at the time of purchase by printed instructions for use.

(f)Effective March 1, 1994, every tear gas container and tear gas weapon that may be lawfully purchased, possessed, and used pursuant to this section shall be accompanied by an insert including directions for use, first aid information, safety and storage information, and explanation of the legal ramifications of improper use of the tear gas container or tear gas product.

(g)Any person who uses tear gas or tear gas weapons except in self-defense is guilty of a public offense and is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months, or two or three years or in a county jail not to exceed one year or by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment, except that, if the use is against a peace officer, as defined in Chapter 4.5 (commencing with Section 830) of Title 3 of Part 2, engaged in the performance of his or her official duties and the person committing the offense knows or reasonably should know that the victim is a peace officer, the offense is punishable by imprisonment in a state prison for 16 months or two or three years or by a fine of one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both the fine and imprisonment.

Have a legal question you want answered? Send me your question here, and it might be featured in an upcoming Q&A.


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trevor main

Trevor Montgomery spent 10 years in the U.S. Army as an Orthopedic Specialist before joining the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department in 1998. He was medically retired after losing his leg in an off-duty accident.

During his time with the sheriff’s department, Trevor worked at several different stations, including the Robert Presley Detention Center, the Southwest Station in Temecula, the Hemet Station, and the Lake Elsinore Station, along with many other locations.

Trevor’s assignments included Corrections, Patrol, DUI Enforcement, Boat and Personal Water-Craft based Lake Patrol, Off-Road Vehicle Enforcement, Problem Oriented Policing Team, Personnel and Background Investigations and he finished his career while working as a Sex Crimes and Child Abuse Investigator.

Trevor has been married for more than 26 years and was a foster parent to more than 60 children over 13 years. He is now an adoptive parent and has 13 children and 12 – soon to be 13 – grandchildren.