By Deborah Brancic
In the state of Massachusetts, there are many regulations designed to keep citizens safe, and currently more regulations are being debated in the realm of gun legislation and weapons permits. However, a great number of people are unaware of the fact that a special permit — called a Federal Identification Card, restricted class — is required to purchase a well known safety tool: pepper spray.
To get this card, the applicant must pay $25 to the local police department. “They do a background check,” said Kendall Knapik, assistant manager of Guns Inc. in West Springfield, MA, and gun safety course instructor. She also said that if something came up in the background check, the applicant may need to complete an interview with the chief of police in their town. “Some towns will interview, and sometimes they don’t,” she said. “They don’t interview everybody. If there is something that comes up in your background and they do want to talk to you and you can explain it to them then, then it’s their decision if they want to give you this license.”
There is currently legislation waiting for approval from the Joint Committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. The bill, H3281, was first proposed in 2005 by Rep Timothy J. Toomey of Cambridge, who was then chair for the committee on Public Safety. Since that time, the bill has been renewed in each subsequent session. It is now in its fourth run. The bill is subtitled “An Act relative to increasing the accessibility to nonlethal self defense sprays.” Will Sutton, Toomey’s aide, said that Toomey was moved by testimony from persons in his district that such a bill was needed.
In the state of Massachusetts, there are four tiers of firearms licenses: License to Carry (LTC) Classes A and B, which are for use with ammunition, handguns, rifles and shotguns, both large and non-large capacity, and a firearms identification card (FID), for use with non-large capacity rifles, shotguns and ammunition. These licenses usually require a firearms safety course and a $100 fee. However, there is a restricted version of the FID card which is exempt from the safety course requirement, with a lesser fee of $25, which allows the holder to possess mace or pepper spray for self defense purposes. It is this restricted license that Toomey hopes to eliminate with the bill.
The self defense spray bill proposes removing the definition of pepper spray from MA general laws in relation to firearms, and inserting language to differentiate it from the definition of ammunition. Pepper spray currently falls under the classification of ammunition, and because of this, an FID is required for its purchase.
Many people in Boston do not realize that a license is required for carrying mace. “I’m from California and you can just buy [pepper spray] there,” said Kylie Shannon, a sophomore at Northeastern University (NEU) studying health science. “I’m all for [the bill].”
Indeed there is a big difference between the states in how they regulate the sale of self defense sprays. According to the Mis Defense Products Web site, thirteen states specify that a person must be 18 or older, eleven stipulate how large the container can be, seven deny purchase to felons, five call for certain things to be printed on the label, and four states require a licensed shop or the registration of the spray. Massachusetts is the only state, however, that currently classifies self defense sprays as ammunition and requires the purchaser to obtain a license. This has been the case since the Gun Control Act of 1998.
Lt. Phil Marcil of the WSPD said that in Massachusetts, known felons are likely to get turned down if they apply for a restricted FID card. In addition, if a MA resident does not obtain an FID card and is caught carrying mace or pepper spray, they are subject to a maximum $500 fine, and may also have to appear in court for criminal proceedings. The MA General Laws state, “Whoever owns, possesses or transfers a firearm, rifle, shotgun or ammunition without complying with the provisions of section 129C of chapter 140 shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 2 years or by a fine of not more than $500.” The only choice for non-residents in the state to carry pepper spray without risking jail time — if they do not hold an LTC from their home state — is to obtain a non-resident LTC card, which requires a course, a $100 fee, and is only valid for one year (LTC cards for residents are valid for 6 years).
Toomey believes this type of regulation is not necessary for self defense sprays. “I just think it’s a no-brainer. I think you should not need a firearms card for self defense sprays,” said Toomey. “The point of the bill was to make a nonlethal weapon more readily available to individuals to defend themselves, in case of a domestic situation or a woman… walking late at night that doesn’t want to get a card to carry a gun… but certainly pepper spray would be able to help them protect themselves from an attacker… It is just very simple to give individuals the abilities to defend themselves.”
Many residents tended to agree with Toomey that the state needs to increase accessibility to pepper spray. “I think as long as they are registering people,” said Zolan Kanno-Youngs, a sophomore at NEU studying journalism. “It is the last form of defense for some people, especially in Boston.” One visitor from abroad saw a big difference in the laws from his home country. “I am from England and there are no restrictions for pepper spray, there shouldn’t be any here,” said Matthew Watts, who was visiting a friend in Boston while on holiday.
Protection from attack is something that all New Englanders should be ready for, especially residents of Massachusetts. In 2010, numerous news publications, including the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald, and the Patriot Ledger, reported MA the highest ranked state in the Northeast in violent crimes in 2009, based on data gathered from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation census. While Massachusetts held relatively steady in violent crime rates (from 2004–2008 it ranked from 19th to 23rd highest in the nation, according to disastercenter.com), neighbors like Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire boasted rankings of 49th to 51st, placing them among the safest states in the nation. There were 19,638 aggravated assaults documented in MA in 2011, according to The Disaster Center, just one subsection of violent crime. Factoring in population numbers, this averages out to 298.1 aggravated assaults for every 100,000 inhabitants. That translates to about 3 people for every thousand reporting an aggravated assault that year.
Other sources see an end to this trend, however. Cityrating.com noted a downward trend in crime data from the past eleven years. The website states, “Based on this report, the crime rate in Massachusetts for 2013 is expected to be lower than in 2010 when the state violent crime rate was higher than the national violent crime rate average by 17.96% and the state property crime rate was lower than the national property crime rate average by 13.32%.”
Regardless, it is always advisable to be prepared to defend oneself from a possible attacker. To accomplish this, there are four requirements for a good defensive weapon, according to SWAT Deftac, a South African supplier of self defense sprays worldwide. On the Web site, they state that a good personal weapon must be effective, must be effectual on single or multiple attackers, must be efficient from a distance, and should not be obvious. SWAT Defac compared pepper spray to firearms, knives, stun guns, martial arts, and personal alarms, and found that while other options may be handy in certain circumstances, pepper spray is the only weapon that can be said to protect an individual in all situations. Self defense sprays can come in small containers, readily concealable, and can be used from a distance against multiple attackers. The effects of pepper spray, in addition, include temporary blindness from eye irritation, difficulty breathing from constriction of air passageways, coughing, and runny noses. All effects are temporary, lasting on average for about a half hour, giving the user time to escape.
This need to protect oneself from violence is ever-present, and Toomey sees the self defense spray legislation as being necessary to achieve that end. Arguments for the bill were heard on April 4, 2013 before the committee on Public Safety and Homeland Security. “We submitted written testimony on the bill,” said Toomey. “Now the committee will then decide what bills will move forward, to pass, what bill to hold for further study. This bill seems to be held for further study, but we will wait to see what the committee does with it.”
There is little money spent on lobbying this piece of legislation. Few people in the public have even heard of its existence, perhaps because so few are aware of the requirement for pepper spray licensing. The bill may be held back for future sessions indefinitely, if history is any indication. In addition, it differs from the nationwide agenda on further restricting gun laws, which is currently a hot topic in the Senate. Incidents such as the elementary school shootings in Newtown, CT, have given any bills that relax the requirements for obtaining a weapon a difficult time finding political support.
Some people think legislators should be concentrating more on gun legislation rather than self defense. “It should be completely different,” said Jeanie Simms, a Boston resident. “I think there should be more wait time for guns.” Her friend from England agreed with her. “There should be more restrictions for guns,” said Watts.
Toomey sees the issues as completely separate. “It is not a weapon, not a gun. That is my position, other people might disagree,” he said. “Guns kill, nonlethal spray will temporarily blind you for the time being, it is not going to kill you.”
Toomey is not the only legislator to feel this way. In the last session alone, five separate bills were filed — including Toomey’s — all seeking to remove pepper spray from the definition of ammunition and do away with the licensing requirement. None were passed, and the number of bills proposed this session remains to be seen.