In many countries across Europe, pepper spray has been illegalized for civilian use. But with the rise of reported assaults, some politicians are pushing towards legalizing pepper spray for self-defense purposes to help increase the confidence in their citizens.
By: Nicole Ares and Sharmaine Penning
Maureen, a 48-year-old woman living in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, never thought she would end up in a situation where she had to defend herself, especially from her ex-boyfriend who she thought she loved.
”He would get really aggressive and he was twice my size. In the last attack he made me feel so powerless the only thing I felt I could do was run. I locked myself in the bathroom, I felt like I wasn’t going to be able to defend myself,” she says.
However, in the Netherlands where pepper spray is illegal for civilian use, Maureen had to find other means to defend herself.
On another occasion where her ex-boyfriend became so aggravated that he broke her table, she resorted to defending herself with a kitchen knife.
”Holding a knife made me feel a little more superior, but whether it´s pepper spray or a knife I will always be afraid of the consequences and the chance that it can be used against me,” Maureen says.
Pepper spray is often used for personal self-defence, but is also used in policing and in riot control against protestors. It is classified as a lachrymatory agent, which is a chemical compound that irritates the eyes to causing tears, pain and temporary blindness.
Nadine Laemmler, a 22-year-old German studying in the United States, has experienced the “excruciatingly painful” effects of pepper spray firsthand. “It was the worst experience of my life,” she says.
Soon after moving to the United States, Laemmler was helping her boyfriend move into his new apartment when she noticed the previous owner had left a box of household items behind. Inside the box, she found a little black tube with no writing on it and she thought it was a flashlight.
Therefore, Laemmler placed the “flashlight” directly in front of her face pressed down on the button to the turn it on, but it wasn’t a light that came out of the little tube.
“I thought I was going blind. My whole face starting burning and I couldn’t open my eyes anymore. It was extremely hard to breathe and it felt like it was going to last forever,” she says.
In Germany, the cans have “pepper spray” written on them in huge letters, Laemmler says. After this experience, she thinks the pepper spray could be used effectively as a self-defense weapon.
“I know for sure that it works, especially if you spray it directly in the other person’s face. I have considered bringing it out and I would use it only if I had to. Protection is never a bad thing.”
Pepper spray laws vary throughout Europe
Last year, controversy over the pepper spray law in Denmark arose when a 17-year-old girl from Sønderborg, Denmark used pepper spray for self defence purposes and faced a fine for doing so.
Coverage of this story reached media across Europe and even in the United States where pepper spray is legal.
However, like Denmark there are many countries that have illegalized pepper spray for civilian use.
In Europe, civilian purchase and use of pepper spray has been banned in The Netherlands, Belgium, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Malta, Norway, Sweden, Turkey, United Kingdom, among other countries.
But some civilians still feel that a form of self-defense is needed. Freja Sandmann is a 27-year-old Danish native who now studies in Hamburg, Germany. Since moving to Germany, she has purchased pepper spray, but in Denmark she used other means of protection.
“When I was younger my mom used to make me carry hair spray around since pepper spray is illegal in Denmark. I also put a key between each finger, like brass knuckles, when I walk alone in the dark streets at night in case someone comes up to me and I can jab them.
“But it’s all about the attitude, if you walk with that kind of confidence, no one will attack you,” she says.
Assaults in Cologne led to the purchase of more pepper spray in Germany
Freja Sandmann is not alone in her desire to use means of self-protection. Rudolf Dehning, co-business owner of Tramm & Hinners arms shop in Hamburg, Germany, says he has seen a rise in the sale of pepper spray after more than 80 women reported sexual assaults and muggings last New Year’s Eve in Cologne, Germany.
“In the last half year, pepper spray has been mostly sold out throughout Germany and in fact, we currently only have one can left in our store,” Dehning says.
For means of self-protection, Dehning says German cops would prefer girls use tear gas instead of pepper spray. In fact, Hamburg police have banned the use of pepper spray at a well-known party street called Reeperbahn.
In Germany, pepper spray is labeled for protection against animals and is not classified as a weapon. Anyone, including minors, can purchase and carry pepper spray except for in restricted areas.
“But if a girl is being attacked, then she can gauge the threat of the situation and act accordingly by using pepper spray if needed. In the case of an attack you can use pepper spray to defend yourself, you can use anything to defend yourself,” he says.
But this leniency is not the case in other European Countries. In Denmark, the purchase and possession of pepper spray is illegal for private citizens; however, police officers started carrying pepper spray in their standard equipment in 2008.
A substantial rise in the number of assaults in Denmark
The Danish Crime Prevention Council, which gives updates on Danish crime prevention six times per year, believes pepper spray is illegal because it is classified as a weapon and only can be used as a weapon.
“Since a pepper spray has no other practical use than as a weapon, there is no tradition for making such weapons available to the public in Denmark and it is unlikely to be granted exemption,” Elizabeth Bergmann Burns, head of communications and analysis, says.
For means of self-defense, Burns believes men and women should be able to analyze a potentially violent situation and disengage from it.
“Defending oneself is closely related to anticipating a dangerous situation and removing oneself from it,” she says.
Burns also added in the last 10 years, violence in Denmark has been declining. However, statistics from the Danish Crime Prevention Council show that the number of reported sexual assaults in Denmark nearly doubled from 382 cases in 2014 to 628 cases in 2015.
Regardless of the regulations on pepper spray, sexual assault is still a prevalent issue in Europe, the United States and the world.
Several politicians are trying to change the legislation on pepper spray
To combat this rise in sexual assault, some political parties in countries such as Denmark and the Netherlands, are pushing towards legalizing pepper spray for civilian purchase and possession.
In Denmark, the Danish People’s Party, along with other political parties such as the Liberal Alliance Ungdom, have proposed motion B-170 to the Danish Parliament with the aim of legalizing pepper spray for self-defense uses.
On 31 May, 2016 the proposal was reviewed by the Committee and rejected with 34 votes in favor and 72 votes against.
Stefan Roy Frederiksen, national president of the Liberal Alliance Ungdom of Denmark, is still hopeful that the legalization of pepper spray for civilian use will be successful in Denmark.
“The police can not manage to provide every single citizen safety 24/7. It will not happen now and it will never happen. Pepper spray actually helps the police secure the safety of the citizens in this country,” he says.
Frederiksen believes the legalization of pepper spray for civilian use will prevent victims from being unable to defend themselves, but will neither increase nor decrease the crime rate.
“We do support the legalization of pepper spray in Denmark. I think that it would be good all over the world. Pepper spray provides safety and comfort for a lot of women and a lot of men in defenseless situations,” he says.
Frederiksen believes, however, this legalization should not come without restrictions. To obtain pepper spray, he believes licensing should be a requirement along with proper training on how to use it.
“The police are trained to use it, so the citizens should be trained to do so also. There has to be some identification that goes along with it. It would be similar to a driver’s license. If you get pulled over and you have pepper spray, you will have to show the officer you have the proper licensing,” Frederiksen says.
Police experience effects of pepper spray firsthand
Ernesto Ritfeld, currently working as a detective in Utrecht, has been a cop for 33 years across the Netherlands. Ritfeld feels giving civilians pepper spray training, similar to the training required for police, is not possible.
For pepper spray training in the Netherlands, police are sprayed directly in the face so they can experience the effects firsthand.
“They use pepper spray on the officers so they all know the effects of it. You use pepper spray in situations where people are spiraling into violence to keep them at a distance, after that it is easier to arrest them. You use pepper spray before you potentially pull your gun,” Ritfeld says.
In his 33 years of police work, Ritfeld has only had to use pepper spray once during a massive fight where the fighters were aiming their violence at the police officers, he says.
“I’m talking about around 40 people attacking us, so we used pepper spray. I think it was very effective in this case,” Ritfeld says.
It is not uncommon for policemen to use pepper spray in situations where they feel their own safety is threatened.
Ritfeld re-iterated that pepper spray could be harmful to civilians if they do not receive the proper training on how to use it. Maureen similarly thought using pepper spray in her situation could have had negative repercussions as she has no experience using it.
“I think in order to use pepper spray with confidence I would like to get some training in self-defense because I wouldn’t know how and when to properly use it,” she says.
After Maureen gained the courage to break-up with her abusive ex-boyfriend, she realized she needed to confront him once more to return his belongings. Weary of the situation, she reached out to a police officer for support.
“He told me it would show a lack of confidence if he came to my house to show support and that it would be better if I stood above that and faced my ex-boyfriend alone. At first I was disappointed and didn’t agree– but he was right and I felt confident after I received much support from family and friends,” she says.
Even though Maureen feels traumatized by the situation and is still having nightmares, she has gained more confidence now that she has stood up against her attacker. She doesn’t plan on buying pepper spray if it becomes legalized in the Netherlands, but still thinks self-defense is important.
“In the right hands and with proper training, pepper spray could be effective in fending off an attack. No one wants to feel helpless, regardless if the attacker is a random person on the street or someone in your own home,” Maureen says.