The current licensing scheme does not address an epidemic of pepper spray-wielding assailants or some other far-fetched problem.
During this session of the General Court of Massachusetts, both the House and Senate are considering bills that would remove the requirement that Massachusetts residents be licensed in order to possess pepper spray.
For those not familiar with this particular bit of bureaucratic excess, in 1998 the Legislature adopted laws that classified pepper spray as ammunition and instituted a restricted version of the Firearms Identification Card. Possessing or using pepper spray without a license is in fact currently a felony.
In order to obtain this license, one must first arrange to visit the police station in their city during normal office hours, read: take time off work. Upon arrival at the station, an application must be filled out and a fee paid. Originally the fee was $25. When I went through the process a few years ago, the fee was $100.
You must then submit to fingerprinting and a background check. If you move while you have a current license, you must send certified letters to the chiefs of police in both your old and new cities of residence as well as the state Criminal Records Division informing them of your move or face charges.
Senate bills 1373 and 1422 and House bills 2325 and 2385 would remove all of these restrictions and allow Massachusetts residents to freely purchase, possess, and use pepper spray for the purpose of self-defense like residents of the other 49 states.
In the course of composing this argument in favor of the pepper spray bills, I checked the press, manufacturers, and scientific literature and spoke with members of the Quincy Police Department about pepper spray, concerned that perhaps I was missing a reason for the licensing scheme. What I found follows.
Pepper spray is effective. Although pepper spray does cause pain and a burning sensation, the important aspect is that it causes the eyes of the attacker to involuntarily close. The involuntary closure of the eyes makes pepper spray effective even against those who are drugged or otherwise tolerant of pain.
The police officers I spoke with had varying levels of enthusiasm for pepper spray efficacy, but the most conservative officer admitted that in at least 50 percent of police encounters, pepper spray immediately ended the confrontation. All of them thought highly of it as a tool for self-defense in the hands of both law enforcement and members of the public.
Pepper spray is an essentially non-lethal means of self-defense. Manufacturers market pepper spray as a non-lethal weapon and police departments routinely treat it as such. A 2001 National Institute of Justice study showed no indication of asphyxiation or other life-threatening side effects in test subjects. A review of the scientific literature found that in 20-odd years of police use of pepper spray, there were only two cases in which pepper spray is suspected to have played a significant role in causing a death. The local police officers had never personally encountered an injury or death due to pepper spray.
Pepper spray abuse is vanishingly rare. I could find no statistics on the abuse of pepper spray by either criminals or members of the public. The police officers I spoke to could not recall ever hearing of an episode in which an attacker used the victim’s spray against them or in which a victim managed to incapacitate themselves instead of the attacker. They had heard of only one or two cases in which pepper spray was used offensively.
In the spectrum of self-defense options pepper spray is a fantastic compromise of safety and effectiveness. You may never choose to carry it, but you can’t deny that it is a viable and reasonable choice for others. Quincy police officers varied in their opinions of what should be required of citizens in order to obtain pepper spray, but none of them supported the system as it currently exists.
The current licensing scheme does not address an epidemic of pepper spray-wielding assailants or some other far-fetched problem. All the licensing scheme does is to discourage honest law-abiding people from taking responsibility for their own safety and instead treats them like criminals, subjecting them to police scrutiny and the same residency tracking that sex-offenders undergo. The financial hurdles are classist, ironically imposing a financial burden on those most in need of self-defense.
Please write, call, or email your legislator and ask them to support these bills and return some common sense to the Massachusetts statutes.
Nicole Mammarella is a graduate student in genetics at Harvard Medical School. She lives in Quincy, Mass.