The Malta Independent 28 June 2022, Tuesday

Should the use of pepper-spray be legalised in Malta?

Mark Said Sunday, 15 May 2022, 09:59 Last update: about 2 months ago

In 2016 police in Denmark sparked anger by warning a teenage girl that she faced prosecution for using pepper spray to fend off a sexual assault near an asylum seekers centre. The rape and murder of Polish student Paulina Dembska in Sliema in January of this year had left many women questioning their safety and had stirred up a discussion on whether it is time for pepper spray to become legalised in Malta. Pepper spray, also known as capsicum spray or mace, is an inflammatory agent and causes an immediate burning sensation and irritation to the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Like some other European countries, including Denmark, Belgium and Ireland, so far, it is illegal to purchase or carry pepper spray in Malta. The European Union does not regulate pepper spray, leaving member countries free to regulate it themselves. However, even in countries where pepper spray may be legal with a licence, the use of it against any person generally constitutes assault in the EU.


One could possibly argue that it is not logical to ban pepper spray when criminals already use deadlier weapons like knives and screwdrivers. At least pepper spray is designed to not kill. Criminals can also already make deadlier weapons than pepper spray. Prisoners already stab each other with things like sharpened toothbrushes. There is also some evidence that it is not so dangerous. It is already legal in France, Germany and in the state of Western Australia. Yet those countries have not imploded due to the legalisation of pepper spray. However, there are two things to consider. The first is that a weapon of defence can become a weapon of offence. So for every person who might want to carry and use it for defence, there are others who will use it as a weapon of offence. That means you are giving potential robbers a tool to carry out their crime. This type of behaviour leads to a spiral of escalation like an arms race! In terms of a terrorist event what would prevent the terrorists from spraying this in a confined space, creating panic and picking off victims as they try and run off? This is the reason police officers abroad will try and avoid using spray in large scale public order situations. The second thing, and possibly more important, is that pepper spray has proved to be a very poor item for self-defence.

Another reason for the widespread use of pepper spray could potentially be the concept of aim and fire which implies no training requirements to use the pepper spray. However, a fact that might be overlooked may be the effectiveness of using these sprays as a defence measure. If a person owns pepper spray but has never used it in the real world, they may be less likely to act decisively and know exactly how to use their pepper spray on an attacker. A first-time pepper spray user will have a much higher chance of misusing the product at the moment, often sudden and unexpected, leading to significant negative results. Compounded with the extremely stressful situations in which pepper spray is typically needed/used, an inexperienced user may cause more harm by using the spray. As a case in point, consider a pepper spray that requires the user to turn a tab completely to the left to expose the nozzle (safety feature). If the user does not know this or does not turn it completely to the left, he or she will not hit the target, and can even lead to spraying him or herself. It may even incapacitate the person who deploys it. Since the form of the spray also varies (gel, single-stream and spray/mist), this potentially could impact the target (aim) and accuracy, which implies that the user may not be effectively using the device.

The problem with most self-defence tools is that unless you have had hours of training, using them under stress can be awkward and detrimental to your survival. Where you keep it can also really limit its effectiveness. Most women wear pretty tight clothing which is not conducive to concealing any kind of weapon. Keeping pepper spray buried in a purse is not very helpful. The easiest way to defend against an attacker is to learn basic self-defence. Learning certain strikes and grapples will go further in high-stress situations than having a weapon.

Like anything else, pepper spray is just one self-defence “tool” in one’s toolbox. It is not a magical solution that will solve every self-defense scenario, and should not be relied upon as such. Pepper spray does not work on everyone. Abroad, there were many instances of people who were not affected by it whatsoever. This can be due to mental illness or altered states of mind due to the use of narcotics. Many people can also just fight through the effects of pepper spray. Pepper spray can be difficult to deploy in stressful and violent situations. The target area is small (mainly the eyes) and they may be wearing glasses or a mask that will interfere and/or negate the effects of pepper spray. Pepper spray runs a huge risk for over contamination. Deploying pepper spray could have legal ramifications too. You may be called upon to justify your actions. Many people's reasoning does not go this far. They just believe that if they are attacked or threatened they will spray them with  pepper spray and everything will be right with the world. As stated here, pepper spray has its place in the world. But like anything else, one should approach self-defence reasonably and not count on pepper spray as the magic solution. Ultimately, I do not think pepper spray can be the best defence tool for a woman walking alone at night in a deserted area.

That is why “self-defence” should not be considered a valid reason to carry a potentially offensive weapon. It is too open to abuse and too likely to go wrong.


Dr Mark Said is an advocate

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