Opinion: Strike down pepper spray restrictions

In a time of increased break-ins, attacks and safety violations, students need better access to self-defense devices. New York state needs to reconsider its pepper spray laws.


Jennifer Ren

Pepper sprays are a simple yet effective tool for self defense. (Jennifer Ren for WSN)

Naisha Roy, Staff Writer

As I finalized my Amazon shopping cart for my first year at NYU, I realized I forgot to add one item: pepper spray. Although it wasn’t as exciting as dorm decorations, I knew it would be crucial to have if I lived by myself in the city. However, as I headed to checkout, my order was blocked; blaring red text notified me that pepper spray could not be shipped to any part of New York, let alone my dorm.

This incident is when I first learned about New York state’s outdated laws concerning the purchase and ownership of pepper spray. New York is one of two states in the continental United States that bans the shipment of pepper spray within its borders altogether. In a state with increased crime, pepper spray is often one of the only ways people, especially women, feel protected. New York needs to reconsider its laws restricting the purchase of pepper spray.

Those looking for a self-defense spray need to buy it in person from a licensed pharmacy or firearms dealer after signing paperwork confirming they are over 18 and have not been convicted of a felony. While these hurdles aren’t impossible to handle, they create confusion around buying pepper spray instead of normalizing what is a very common self-defense device.

The restrictions on purchasing pepper spray make the experience cumbersome and anxiety-inducing. No one wants to enter an arms dealership to purchase what their peers in other states can buy with the click of a button, especially as a college student.

Moreover, NYU has faced a significant uptick in security breaches recently, with unauthorized visitors entering Lafayette Hall, Third Avenue North, Alumni Hall, Coral Tower and Rubin Hall. Oftentimes, security does not apprehend these intruders until they have already interacted with and harassed students. These incidents also disproportionately affect female students; many incidents involved the intruder following a female resident. Between an intruder’s entrance to a dorm and their apprehension, a canister of pepper spray could potentially save someone’s life, even if the residue lingers.

Additionally, pepper spray is illegal to purchase or carry for those under the age of 18. However, crimes and harassment don’t start on a person’s 18th birthday. Two of my own roommates are 17, and nothing makes me more deserving of defending myself than them. Considering the several reports of assault and groping on NYU’s campus recently, pepper spray should be available to all of NYU’s students, not just those who are legal adults. 

It isn’t just an on-campus issue, either. Citywide reported rape cases have gone up 8.9% year-to-date, and police and security are stretched thin. The demand for pepper spray, especially among women and the elderly, is clear. When Chinatown Block Watch gave out free canisters along Mulberry Street to these groups last April in response to rising Asian hate crimes, their stock of nearly 550 pepper sprays emptied in only 30 minutes.

For most people, carrying pepper spray isn’t about necessarily using it. It’s about the sense of empowerment, control and safety associated with simply having it in their possession. New York Post opinion columnist Rikki Schlott wrote that even the threat of pepper spray was enough to save her life when a man threatened and followed her while onlookers refused to help.

“If I hadn’t had the threat of mace, I have no idea how that encounter would have ended,” she wrote. “As a young woman facing down a crime wave in New York City, pepper spray is the only method of self-defense at my disposal.”

Pepper spray is more affordable, practical and effective than other forms of self-defense. Not everyone can access advanced self-defense tools and weapons, and not everyone wants to carry them on a day-to-day basis. Most pepper spray canisters can easily attach to a key ring and don’t require extremely close contact to use, meaning they can defend from a distance and prevent a potential attacker from getting too close. Canisters come with directions but are intuitive to use, and have a safety latch to prevent accidents. 

According to the National Capital Poison Center, even when pepper spray is accidentally inhaled, its effects are “usually mild and temporary, lasting minutes to hours.” The consequences of its misuse aren’t as severe as the hurdles to initially obtain it would imply. 

Most major venues such as Madison Square Garden even confiscate pepper spray, which adds to the stigma surrounding it. This is dangerous for the student population as a whole, whether it be for a night out or a concert visit. Sure, you may not need pepper spray inside a theater. But what about the subway ride back or the walk home? The only self-defense spray that can be legally shipped to New York is animal spray, which is usually not as strong as human pepper spray, and thus less effective. Students, especially women, should not be forced to rely on that to defend themselves. The state’s restrictions do nothing to improve the safety of pepper spray. The only people these laws hurt are female-presenting people, minors and students who want to feel safe walking alone in the streets or on their daily commute. They need to change.

WSN’s Opinion section strives to publish ideas worth discussing. The views presented in the Opinion section are solely the views of the writer.

Contact Naisha Roy at [email protected].