Halloween 2005 riot police

A reveler gets pepper sprayed by police officers as they clear the crowd off State Street during the annual Halloween celebration in Madison in 2005.

MICHELLE STOCKER - The Capital Times

Despite complaints from gun rights advocates, Wisconsin Republicans stopped short of lifting all restrictions on carrying firearms when they made Wisconsin the 49th state to legalize concealed carry two years ago. To the chagrin of the National Rifle Association, those who want to discreetly carry a gun for self-defense must still apply for a permit.

Perhaps as a consolation prize, Republicans now seek to dramatically deregulate the manufacture, sale and use of oleoresin capsicum, commonly known as pepper spray.

Currently, the popular non-lethal self-defense tool is subject to a number of rules imposed by the Department of Justice, most of which are targeted for elimination in a bill authored by a number of Republican legislators.

For instance, state rules now outlaw the sale of bottles that do not spray at least six feet. They also outlaw those that spray more than 20 feet. The bottle cannot be larger than 60 grams and must include first aid information and details about the product, including the concentration of OC in the mixture, which cannot exceed 10 percent.

Hariah Hutkowski, chief of staff to state Rep. Jeremy Thiesfeldt, R-Fond du Lac, one of Senate Bill 109's sponsors, says pepper spray is likely more regulated in Wisconsin than in any other state. It doesn’t make sense to impose strict restrictions on a non-lethal alternative to a firearm, he says.

“We’re one of only two states that regulates the percentage of pepper spray concentration,” he says. “Most of the good ones are 17 percent and our (law) says it has to be 10 percent or less.”

He dismisses the suggestion that removing all regulations on chemical composition could lead to the sale of pepper spray with a dangerously strong punch.

“It only incapacitates them for a short term and I don't believe the manufacturers would go higher, because you can actually get the job done with 17,” he says. “You can actually get the job done with 10, but it's about consumer choice.”

Furthermore, notes Hutkowski, the current 60-gram limit prevents state consumers from buying the amount considered necessary to protect oneself from a bear. “Bear spray” in other states is generally sold in 164 gram canisters.

“This also makes it burdensome for people who want to go out west for a trip,” he says. “Consumers have to spend their money in another state.”

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Under the proposed bill, minors would still be prohibited from buying pepper spray but they could possess it with parental consent.

That’s the part that bothers Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, who, along with Sen. Nikita Harris, D-Milwaukee, voted against the bill when it passed the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor on a party-line vote earlier this month.

“If pepper spray is a good deal — and I'm not sure it is — then why do you say that just those kids who have parents say it's OK should have it,” he says, fearing a situation in which some kids are carrying around the potent mixture that their peers lack.

Moreover, Risser sees no reason to lift all meaningful regulations on the product.

“I don't know why we shouldn't have reasonable regulation on the use of it,” he says.

So far, no groups have reported lobbying in support or opposition of the measure.


Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.