Pepper spray would give us a fighting chance

opinion January 12, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

Regulated sales could fend off the most determined attacker, and yet possession of this non-lethal deterrent brings hefty penalties



The murder of a man in a recent mugging in Bangkok by a knife-wielding robber could have been prevented if the victim had sufficient protection to ward off his attacker.

Apprehended on the basis of closed-circuit video footage, this thug, this thief, this murderer, told police he fatally knifed the victim in the throat because he fought back, refusing to surrender his iPhone. It’s an appalling yet common “rationale” among criminals – and a prime reason why so many Thais continue to support capital punishment in homicide cases. Anyone who resorts to extreme violence, the thinking goes, must be punished with equal violence. The law and the justice system concur on this, even though the death penalty is seldom applied in Thailand.

Confusingly, though, the law also prohibits citizens from carrying pepper spray, a useful deterrent to crime that in this particular case might have saved the victim’s life and perhaps even his phone. A blast of pepper spray could have incapacitated the attacker long enough for his target to flee to safety. Instead he was left to defend himself with his bare hands.

Civilians found in possession of pepper spray can by law be jailed for up to 10 years and fined as much as Bt1 million. In other words, the penalty is far worse than if you’re caught with illicit drugs or a firearm. And the penalty is enough to ensure obedience. Few law-abiding citizens would risk breaking the law on pepper spray, even when there are thousands of convicted criminals with lethal weapons roaming the streets unmolested by police.

Clearly we need to abridge the law to make it easier for good citizens to protect themselves against crime. There can never be enough police officers to safeguard us round the clock, so self-defence becomes essential, and there are non-lethal tools for that. In the context of sexual predators, women in particular would be far better off with a container of pepper spray close to hand.

The sale and use of pepper spray should be legal and at the same time carefully regulated to prevent its unjustified use. Buyers should be required to provide identity information and people under 18 should be barred from purchase.

For every case on the books overseas in which criminals have made use of pepper spray in robberies and assaults, there are far more instances where the would-be victims have used it to successfully ward off attacks. 

Certainly if pepper spray were more readily available in Thailand, we could expect it to be used occasionally with ill intent. But experts including Police Lt Colonel Chotwichian Wichianchot, director of the Alert Centre for Women, counters that criminals would always prefer a knife or gun. Believing pepper spray would be a useful tool in citizen defence, Chotwichian suggests the law be amended to allow its possession for that purpose. 

Pepper spray is a non-lethal aerosol spray made with oleoresin capsicum, a pepper derivative. Causing irritation to the eyes and the respiratory system, it temporarily blinds an attacker, giving the user time to escape.

Common sense alone can often save us from becoming victims of crime, particularly when it comes to venturing out alone after dark or visiting areas that appear risky. The unfortunate man in last week’s murder, however, was at a well-lit street corner and yet fell victim, as if by happenstance, to a determined, armed and ruthless thug. Beyond the fight-or-flight choice, a tool to hold attackers at bay even for a moment could save our life. Pepper spray would answer that need.

The law should be protecting citizens, not denying them a relatively safe means to protect themselves.