Jun 2, 2020 - Economy & Business

The business of tear gas

Illustration of a hand spraying a bottle and the gas comes out in the shape of a money sign

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

U.S. forces yesterday used tear gas on peaceful protesters outside the White House gates, prior to a declared curfew, clearing a path for President Trump to visit a riot-damaged church for a photo opportunity.

The state of play: Two of the largest U.S. producers of tear gas are owned by private equity firms, but those firms have no interest in discussing their ownership.

There is no federal tracking of tear gas usage by U.S. law enforcement, thus making it difficult to determine which company's products are used most regularly. But several outside research firms have determined that market leaders include:

Combined Systems of Jamestown, Pennsylvania.

  • The company was acquired in 2005 by Point Lookout Capital Partners, a New York-based private equity firm whose portfolio is dominated by law enforcement-related investments. Point Lookout didn't return interview requests.
  • The Carlyle Group also participated in that deal as a minority investor. It was made out of an old fund that's already closed with its assets sold, but Carlyle retains a residual equity piece in a trust that it's been unable to exit.
  • A source close to the firm says that Carlyle would not make such an investment today, because it would violate the firm's "responsible investing guidelines."

Safariland of Jacksonville, Florida.

  • The 56-year-old company was acquired in 2012 by a consortium, which includes Palm Beach Capital, from BAE Systems for $124 million.
  • Palm Beach Capital didn't return an interview request.
  • That deal also included Warren Kanders, a onetime investment banker who last summer stepped down as vice chairman of the Whitney Museum of American Art due to protests over his Safariland involvement.

Tear gas isn't really a gas. It's a pressurized powder that mists upon deployment and can cause choking and other symptoms beyond tears. It also lives in a legal gray zone, due to international treaties that allow it to be used in domestic law enforcement but not in war.

  • Many in law enforcement argue that tear gas ultimately saves lives of both police and protesters, as conflicts could otherwise turn deadly.
  • But, as we saw last night live on TV, it can also be abused with impunity.

The bottom line: Private equity firms typically take every opportunity to talk about their portfolio companies, proud of their products and management teams. In this case, they're silent.

Go deeper