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SF Walgreens security guards are now carrying ‘nonlethal’ guns. Are they legal?

A security guard armed with a "kinetic weapon" talks on a phone while posted in front of Walgreens on Mission Street in San Francisco on Wednesday.| Justin Katigbak for The Standard

In the wake of Banko Brown’s fatal shooting by a security guard at a Downtown San Francisco Walgreens two weeks ago, security personnel at the drugstores have been directed to arm themselves with "nonlethal" guns that fire plastic pellets. The move appears to be an attempt at avoiding a similar tragic incident in the future. 

However, the president of a security guard industry association said that the weapons are not sanctioned by the state for use by security guards, and the list of weapons the state allows licensed security guards to carry does not include this type of nonlethal gun. Meanwhile, San Francisco has a law on the books banning their use, though officials were unclear if it's being enforced.

Kingdom Group Protective Services, which provides security to about 20 Walgreens across the Bay Area, directed its guards to stop using regular guns on May 3—six days after one of its workers shot Brown. The company instructed guards to replace their guns with Byrna weapons, internal communications obtained by The Standard revealed.

“If necessary, use the less lethal weapons you are authorized and certified to carry. Acceptable tools are: ‘BYRNA,’ Pepper Gel, and ‘TASER,’” a May 3 Kingdom Group memo said. 

A Kingdom Group memo to guards on the use of Byrna weapons is dated six days after the killing of Banko Brown.

The air-powered weapons, which are sometimes referred to as kinetic energy weapons or air launchers, look like regular firearms. They shoot large pellets and have been found in some cases to cause serious injury and—despite being billed as nonlethal—even death, according to the National Institutes of Health. 

“I know people are carrying them, but you shouldn’t be carrying them,” David Chandler, president of the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates, said of the kinetic weapons. 

Chandler said that security guards are neither trained nor licensed by the state to use such weapons. 

When asked whether Byrna weapons can be used by security guards, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Consumer Affairs, which licenses security guards, replied with only a list of the weapons that guards are allowed to use. That list did not include Byrna guns, and the spokesman said that “current law does not address the use of kinetic weapons by security guards.”

A Kingdom Group Protective Services guard with a kinetic energy weapon at Walgreens on Mission Street and 23rd Street in San Francisco on May 9. | Jonah Lamb/The Standard

Department spokesperson Peter Fournier said via email that if licensed security guards have the proper permits, they are allowed to carry firearms, batons, pepper spray and tasers.

When asked again if a kinetic weapon—specifically a Byrna—was barred from use, Fournier once more refused to address the use of a Byrna and replied that “kinetic weapon” was a broad term that may apply to numerous types of devices, so the state was unable to say whether security guards are explicitly barred from using them. 

The spokesperson did say that any weapons “that can be perceived as a replica or simulated firearm are prohibited.” Aside from their bright colors, Byrnas look like real firearms. Chandler, of the industry association, said the Byrna "definitely looks like a firearm; I don't care what color you paint it.”

Chandler said that despite the state's waffling, the law is clear on who can use kinetic weapons and that security guards cannot use them. “The penal code says law enforcement only," he said. "Security guards are not law enforcement."

Byrna kinetic weapons are advertised on Some Kingdom Group Protective Services guards in San Francisco are armed with Byrna kinetic guns, which discharge large plastic pellets or chemical agent balls. | The Standard

In San Francisco, there is similar murkiness around the legality of such weapons. While Police Municipal Code Section 602 bans them, whether the city enforces that law remains ambiguous. When asked, SF Police Department spokesman Adam Lobsinger wrote, “potentially” and advised reaching out to the District Attorney’s Office.

The District Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment. The City Attorney’s Office confirmed that there is a law banning air guns and kinetic weapons on the books, but would not comment further. 

The company that sells the weapons, Byrna, does not sell them in San Francisco, which it notes on its website. “None of the air launchers are allowed in San Francisco,” Byrna’s chief revenue officer, Luan Pham, said of their kinetic weapons. 

Kingdom Group declined to comment on whether it had told guards to bring Byrna guns to Walgreens. However, Pham said that Kingdom Group told his company that Walgreens asked that the guards carry those weapons. 

Walgreens denied that it had asked Kingdom Group to arm its security guards with Byrna weapons.

In addition to the internal communications advising personnel to use Byrna weapons, several guards The Standard spoke to said they are carrying them. 

A Kingdom Group guard working at the Walgreens at Mission and 23rd Streets this week had a Byrna on his hip and acknowledged that he was ordered to use it instead of his gun. 

Kingdom Group security guards are not the only ones carrying the weapons at Walgreens. Rafael Gutierrez, a security guard who works at two Walgreens in San Francisco for a security company named Security Special Services, said he is using a Byrna too. 

A security guard walks in front of Walgreens on Mission Street in San Francisco on Wednesday, May 10, 2023. | Justin Katigbak for The Standard

“They shoot out hard projectiles and tear gas,” Gutierrez said of the weapon, which he ordered online and had sent to his sister's house in Richmond to get around the company’s refusal to ship them to San Francisco. 

Security Special Services did not respond to requests for comment. 

While Byrna vouches for the safety of its nonlethal weapons, the National Institutes of Health has said kinetic weapons have been found to be dangerous and can cause death when used in crowd-control situations. 

On Byrna’s website, a number of reviews noted the guns' strength, even showing photos of the projectiles piercing particle board and a mannequin. 

“After witnessing what the solid projectiles did to the piece of particle board i was using as a backstop??? You can officially label me a ‘byrna believer,’” wrote one reviewer. 

Another review seemed to concur. 

“I shot the Eco-Kinetic rounds into the back of my solid pine shed door: it looked like I had struck it five times with a ball peen hammer!”

Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at