It is easier to buy an illegal handgun than a can of self-defense spray on Washington, D.C. streets. That’s because the city has a law intended to dissuade merchants from selling mace by forcing them to track and register every can sold. This leaves law-abiding people with nothing but their hands when confronted by a criminal.
(This is part four in a series. Click here to start reading from part one.)
I’ve been investigating the District’s mace laws since a police detective told me I needed to register self-defense spray. I was concerned because I’d received a threatening call, but more than that, I was dealing with reality of living in a city in the midst of a crime wave.
D.C. CRIME SPIKE
Two weeks ago, Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Chief Cathy L. Lanier was asked about three of my articles on WTOP Radio’s “Ask the Chief.” She was clearly not pleased with the editorial entitled, “D.C.: District of Crime,” which cited the huge spike in violence in the city.
WTOP host Mark Segraves asked her whether it was true that she uses FBI’s crime statistics or D.C. code data depending on which came out looking better.
The police chief attacked me viciously. “First of all any reporter who doesn’t understand UCR by now and reports that way, I’m sorry, they just shouldn’t be a reporter,” she said.
I looked back and found I’d written this: “The difference depends on whether the numbers are counted according to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report (UCR) methodology, or using the system, updated in real time, that classifies incidents according to the city’s criminal code.”
It seems pretty cut and dry. And we have never heard from the chief or her staff about a correction to the editorial.
The chief went on to say that, “I publish both on my website. When I report to local community people, I give them the D.C. code stats because that is our law.”
That’s not exactly accurate. She neglected to mention that MPD mysteriously took down the database on their website days after my piece ran saying violent crime was up 8 percent in 2012.
Mr. Segraves asked her about the information blackout. She responded that they were switching to a “new system” and building it would take “a little time.” You’d think the nation’s capital could keep their public informed about the daily crimes while working on the database, or at least provide a static snapshot of recent figures.
I tried to find information on crime numbers from another link on MPD’s website that is called “district crime data at a glance.” This page only gives the good news stats: homicides are down and gun recovery is up. Nothing else.
Finally, I asked MPD spokesman Gwendolyn Crump for the current crime numbers. The numbers that are being hidden from the public are even worse than before the site went down.
Violent crime is up 7 percent so far in 2012 compared to last year. Sexual assaults are up a horrifying 57 percent. Chief Lanier explained this away by saying it’s due to a new classification system and increased reporting from community outreach efforts.
D.C. police union head Kristopher Baumann was less sanguine about the spike. “The fact that we have not led out with a broad campaign of public awareness, education, and targeted enforcement to address sexual assaults is inexcusable,” he told me.
Other bad news being hidden from residents are that robberies with a gun are up 20 percent, and assaults with a gun increased 16 percent. There was a spike in homicides last month, from five in August to 11 in September. MPD points out that two of the murderers listed occurred in previous years.
“There hasn’t been a word from police headquarters about the homicides in D.C. doubling in September,” Officer Baumann responded. “How is the public supposed to know what is happening in this city? Is it an anomaly or is it a new trend? We don’t know because they took down the information.”
I’d like to think that I might have a chance to fight off D.C.’s increasing population of armed murderers and rapists with pepper spray, but the city doesn’t want me to even do that.
The chief was also asked on the radio about my story on trying to legally buy self-defense spray. “You can purchase pepper spray,” she explained. “The person who sells it to you — if you buy in the District of Columbia — is required to send a registration to the Metropolitan Police Department.” This contradicts Officer Alicia Kornegay at MPD’s firearms registration office who told me to send the form in myself after buying the spray.
Chief Lanier also added that, “Pepper spray is what’s regulated in the district. Anything that’s above that is prohibited. So, for example, for us, for law enforcement, OC spray, CS spray — what we use in crowd control — is a completely different chemical.”
Having unregistered mace carries the same penalty as an unregistered gun — up to a year in jail and $1,000 fine. Chief Lanier contradicted this, however, saying that, “There’s no penalty for you to be in possession of it. It is the seller who is required to complete a registration for personal use for persons over 18 years old and send it to MPD.”
The law is unclear on whether the penalty falls on the buyer or seller of unregistered mace. The section on self-defense spray is within the whole firearms law and does not have a separate penalty section. The statute says that, “any person convicted of a violation of any provision of this unit shall be fined not more than $ 1,000 or imprisoned for not more than 1 year, or both.”
Of course the police don’t write the laws, they just enforce them. So the question is whether the liberal city council enacted this ordinance in order to go after rogue mace sellers or residents trying to defend themselves.
If the purpose is to go after sellers, there either should be places to buy mace in the city (which police say is not the case) or else the law is driving businesses not to carry the controversial product. I’ve asked repeatedly for comment or clarification from City Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, but not yet received a response.
While the courts work though the debate on the right to bear arms in the District, the least the local government could do is allow residents to easily and legally buy self-defense sprays to protect themselves a little on the crime-ridden streets of our nation’s capital.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: Trying to buy mace in D.C.
Emily Miller is a senior editor for the Opinion pages at the Washington Times. Her “Emily Gets Her Gun” series on the District’s gun laws won the 2012 Clark Mollenhoff Award for Investigative Reporting from the Institute on Political Journalism.You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.