Pepper spray is commonly thought of as a staple for self-defence. It is compact, easy to use, a quick way to incapacitate an attacker, and won’t kill someone if used accidentally or wrongfully. But for the majority of Australians, it is not legal to purchase or use.
In this article, we’ll discuss why it’s illegal, exceptions to this law, and alternate methods of self-defence.
Why is pepper spray illegal in most areas?
In some situations, pepper spray can be the difference between life and death. It quickly immobilises attackers. Obviously, it can be used for harmful reasons but, unlike some other weapons, it won’t kill you if turned against you.
But in the Weapons Prohibition act 1998, any device designed or intended as a defence or that is capable of discharging any irritant matter is prohibited. It is not legal to purchase or make your own pepper spray.
In 2018 Australia saw an epidemic of women being attacked and/or murdered. This prompted a Senate discussion about legalising pepper spray and encouraging the use of it to ward off violent attacks- but this motion failed, 46-5.
Self-defence expert Kellie Toole believes the debate surrounding pepper spray is similar to that of gun laws in the USA. Items used for self-defence can be used by perpetrators against victims and create risks, whether through deliberate or accidental misuse.
Toole also questioned the motive for the call to legalise pepper spray in light of violent attacks against women. Many of those advocating for the legalisation of pepper spray were believed to have ulterior motives, using victim safety as a cover story.
Exceptions to this law
Western Australia has a slightly different view of pepper spray than most states- but it certainly isn’t a free-for-all kind of situation where you can buy pepper spray in the supermarket. In WA, pepper spray falls under the category of “controlled weapon”. Western Australians can purchase pepper spray as long as they have reasonable grounds to do so. But proving these “reasonable grounds” is where things can get a little blurred.
Western Australians who are caught with pepper spray need to provide a reason that they feel they need it to defend themselves- and hope the law enforcement officer agrees with their reasoning. One could argue that every woman and vulnerable person has reasonable grounds to carry pepper spray, but you need to provide a suspicion or belief that you will need to use the pepper spray. For example, if someone you know has committed a violent offence against you.
These laws exist to deter the wrong person from getting a hold of pepper spray. But it means that only those who have previously been assaulted can use pepper spray- those who are at risk of being assaulted cannot carry pepper spray. Women walking alone at night after work may well have reasonable grounds to carry, but can only do so if they’ve already been the victim of a violent crime.
New South Wales residents may be able to obtain a permit for pepper spray- again, as long as they have reasonable grounds, which do not include self-defence- but NSW is nowhere near as lenient about pepper spray as WA is. Furthermore, your permit can be suspended or revoked for a myriad of reasons. Outside of WA and NSW, permits for pepper spray are issued for police or government use.
What happens if you’re caught with pepper spray?
For most Australians, pepper spray is prohibited- and this applies to the other names pepper spray commonly goes by, such as capsicum spray, mace, and OC spray.
Being caught carrying pepper spray is a big deal in most states. Although it is possible to obtain a permit to carry pepper spray in NSW, many people caught with pepper spray are given pretty hefty prison sentences- generally 5-14 years.
Different states consider pepper spray to be a different type of weapon. Regardless, it is viewed as an illegal item or weapon, and consequences are given to those found carrying it.
How to protect yourself without pepper spray
While pepper spray can offer a layer of assurance that you will be safe in the unfortunate event of a violent attack, it isn’t the only way to defend yourself from potential attackers.
If you’re frequently in situations where you don’t feel safe, you may want to take a self-defence class. You can learn to use your body as a weapon, as well as other items you may have on your person.
If you have a gut feeling that you’re being followed, don’t ignore it. It’s better to feel a bit silly or paranoid than to regret not being a bit more paranoid. Additionally, look into personal protective apps. Be vigilant!