Pepper spray CEO touts 'nonlethal' school safety products

Armed with a team of lobbyists, the chief of a major pepper spray manufacturer made the rounds on Capitol Hill this week to discuss “nonlethal” products that could be used to protect the nation’s schools.

John McCann, president and CEO of Mace Security International, said he planned to convey to lawmakers that there is an alternative to using armed guards to protect children from would-be attackers, as has been proposed in response to last year’s shooting in Newtown, Conn.

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“We want to bridge the gap between shouting and shooting,” McCann said in an interview with The Hill.

One goal for the powwows was clearing up what McCann said are common misconceptions about pepper spray.

McCann said people often ask him: “How can a little can of pepper spray stop a guy with a gun?” 

“There’s a lack of discussion in Washington about nonlethal methods,” he said, “because of a perception that it’s not really viable.”

But he said the spray comes in a variety of forms, many of which are far more powerful that the products that people sometimes carry on key chains.

The spray comes in a 12-ounce can, complete with a pin to lock the trigger, and can also be made in a larger bottle that’s the size of a fire extinguisher.

McCann said there are gel formulas capable of reaching 35 feet that stick to doors, intruders and linger in the air to disable an attacker while help arrives.

The sprays can even be equipped with a range of safety options to prevent tampering or abuse, such as fingerprint recognition technology or a coded lock.

Other options include a bright yellow pepper spray case that would sound an alarm to local law enforcement when opened. The company chose yellow,

McCann said, so that the plastic housing wouldn’t be confused with ones holding fire extinguishers.

The visit reflects an aggressive move by Mace Security into the Washington lobbying sphere. The name of the four-decade old company has become shorthand for pepper spray and its use, but Mace has never had lobbyists in the capital — until now.

The company hired the powerhouse K Street firm Cassidy & Associates in April, just a few days before gun control legislation went down to defeat in the Senate. The legislation that was shelved included amendments that would increase funding for school security.

Hiring Cassidy is part of a broader effort by McCann to revamp Mace Securities. Since becoming CEO last year, McCann has moved quickly to try and get the company out of the red promoting its feature products and moving the company away from excess products it shed only a few years ago — including a car wash subsidiary.

McCann said he said he had no legislative agenda for his first Washington visit, but wanted to place himself in front of as many lawmakers as possible to tell them about the options available for schools and administrators to thwart intruders.

“This is step one,” McCann said on Tuesday, adding he plans to return throughout the year.

He was flanked during his visit by a team of four Cassidy lobbyists, including Andrew Forbes, a former senior legislative aide to  ex-Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) and Retired Marine Corps Brigadier General Terry Paul, who is a former liaison between the military and the Senate.

McCann and the Cassidy team said they set up meetings with more than a dozen Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate, including Rep. David Joyce (R) and the staff of Sen. Sherrod Brown (D), both from Ohio where Mace’s headquarters is located.

Cassidy said the meetings with lawmakers were intended to produce “a conducive environment to having [the products] in schools.”

“I’m not saying we shouldn’t looking at other strategies,” McCann said, “but [pepper spray] should be part” of a comprehensive school safety plan.

Lawmakers have fiercely debated how best to secure the nation’s schools in response to the Newtown shooting, where a gunman murdered 20 young children and six adults at an elementary school.

In response, the National Rifle Association proposed putting an armed police force in every school. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre.

In January, at least two members introduced legislation that would strike parts of the Gun-Free School Zones Act that make it illegal to “possess or discharge a firearm in a school zone,” as part of an overall movement to train and arm school officials.

Several states already allow administrators and teachers to carry a registered gun with permission from principals, superintendents or other authorities, a loophole provided in that law.

President Obama looked to increase security as well, putting $230 million in grants for “improving school security” on his list of executive actions for gun control reforms.

In addition to hiring more school counselors to tackle the behavioral or mental causes of violence, Obama sought to extend a Justice Department grant program aimed at hiring law enforcement officials to guard schools.

The White House also suggested that school districts could spend federal money on creating emergency plans and “purchase school safety equipment” — and that’s where Mace comes in.

“It’s easy to implement, easy to train people on and very cost-effective,” McCann said of his company’s products, adding that the members and staff he met with seemed very receptive to the idea of rolling out nonlethal solutions to violence. “It was what they wanted to hear.”

“We’re not protecting buildings, we’re protecting kids,” he said. “We have to keep that in our mind’s eye.”