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Pepper Spray Bans Codify Victim Blaming

A young woman in Denmark has been charged for defending herself against an attacker with pepper spray. Because of DC’s laws, this could happen here, too.


If you’re a woman under attack in Washington DC, think twice before using pepper spray to defend yourself—you might end up the one being prosecuted.

If this situation sounds absurd, that’s because it is. But sadly, it’s exactly what happened recently to a 17-year-old girl in Sønderborg, Denmark, where pepper spray is illegal. The girl, who successfully fended off a man who had been trying to undress her, is facing police charges and a “substantial fine” for illegally using pepper spray.

“It is illegal to possess and use pepper spray, so she will likely be charged for that,” a Sønderborg police spokesman told TV Syd.

European women have grown increasingly anxious after a wave of sexual assaults struck countries including Denmark, many of them involving roving gangs of asylum seekers and refugees. The attacks spurred increased calls in countries like Germany to end its open-door policy towards Syrian refugees.

Pepper Spray Is Illegal in DC, Too

But in this case, instead of spending their time hunting down the aggressor, the Danish police are going after the victim. The situation makes about as much sense as the pepper spray laws in our own nation’s capital.

Instead of spending their time hunting down the aggressor, the Danish police are going after the victim.

In Washington DC, it’s illegal for a 17-year-old to possess or use pepper spray. Once you turn 18, the Metropolitan Police Department says you can possess sprays that are, “a mixture of a lacrimator including chloroacetophenone, alphacloracetophenone, phenylchloromethylketone, orthochlorobenazalm-alononitrile or oleoresin capsicum.” Ladies, I hope you took chemistry in college.

Once you master the proper ratio of chloroacetophenone to alphacloracetophenone, you then must ensure your pepper spray is properly labeled. “[S]elf-defense sprays must be propelled from an aerosol container, labeled with clearly written instructions for use, and dated with its anticipated useful life,” The District states. Dust off your label makers! We’ve got more work to do.

If you—like me—need further clarification about how to legally obtain pepper spray, the government instructs you to call the Police Department’s Firearm Registration office. Why? Because in Washington DC pepper spray is considered a “firearm.” To possess the defense spray, you must properly register it, alongside guns.

Effectively Banning Pepper Spray Endangers Women

In 2012, investigative reporter Emily Miller attempted to find out what happens if DC residents don’t properly register their pepper spray.

“The law is unclear on whether the penalty falls on the buyer or seller of unregistered mace,” Miller wrote in the Washington Times, adding:

The section on self-defense spray is within the whole firearms law and does not have a separate penalty section. The statute says that, ‘any person convicted of a violation of any provision of this unit shall be fined not more than $1,000 or imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both.’

For a while, I had doubts this would ever happen, so I quietly kept my unregistered, non-lethal hot sauce to myself. But now, after hearing the story of the 17-year-old in Sønderborg facing charges for simply defending herself, I’m speaking out. As Thomas Jefferson once said, “If a law is unjust, a man is not only right to disobey it, he is obligated to do so.”

The DC government should create common sense policies, not burdensome regulations that put women at risk.

Pepper spray is a common and effective device for defenseless women to fend off an attacker—just look at the 17-year-old in Sønderborg. The DC government should create common sense policies that reflect this fact, not burdensome regulations that put women at risk.

When women face soaring rates of assault, as is certainly the case now in Europe, they are obligated to arm themselves. When violent crime continues to plague the streets of our nation’s capital, the responsible thing to do is to carry pepper spray. No one—especially not the government—should get in the way.

Would it be difficult to head down to Metropolitan Police Department to fill out a firearm registration form for my pepper spray? No. But on principle, I don’t intend to.

I’m not a rule breaker, but I shouldn’t have to crack open a chemistry book to obey the law and keep myself safe. If the DC government has a problem with that, they can come pry my pepper spray out of my manicured hands.