After getting a message from someone who threatened to kill me, I was scared. I found myself in the ten-day waiting period before I could get my first gun for self-defense in my home. When the waiting was finally over, I felt a little safer.
Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) Detective Kim, who had taken my case, called once a week to check on me. One week I told her that Verizon refused to give out the blocked phone number. She called Verizon’s law enforcement line to get the number, but the phone company refused without a subpoena.
The next few weeks I was a bit more relaxed but kept a careful vigilance, avoiding being caught anywhere alone. I scanned my street every morning and night to see if anyone was hiding. I’m not the only one in Washington who wanted carry rights for self-defense outside the home.
Pretending to have a gun
A few weeks after the call, Mary Cheh, who represents Ward 3 in the city council, happened to hold a public safety hearing about the enormous spike in crime in her ward. At the meeting, a woman stood up and said that she had been targeted by a criminal on the street.
The D.C. resident said that she was walking home on Military Rd., N.W. when a man came up to her and tried to rob her. Thinking quickly, she claimed to be armed. “Just because I said, ‘I have a gun and will shoot,’ he ran,” she reported at the community meeting.
If there were ever a perfect example of why having the right to concealed carry is a deterrent to crime, that was it.
“So I can’t have it on the street?” the resident asked, turning to her neighbors in the rows of chairs. Someone said, “No.” The woman turned back to Ms. Cheh. “You said, ‘You can go ahead and keep it at home,’ but [this resident] answered the questions directly — you cannot have it on the streets.”
She also added, “I understand the power behind a weapon, but by the same token I think law-abiding, tax-paying citizens, we need to have some other recourse.”
Police chief on registering mace
With that, Ms. Cheh turned to Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier and said that people have been asking her whether they can carry mace.
Chief Lanier said to register pepper spray at the Security Officers Management Branch at the Reeve Metropolitan Center, and she’d follow up with information on the MPD website.
I checked the MPD website repeatedly but could find no mention of how to register mace. I then checked D.C. code to see for myself if the city council really put such a huge barrier in front of residents wanting to defend themselves.
D.C.’s unique mace laws
Apparently, even being allowed to possess self-defense spray was a fairly recent development. In 1993, the city enacted the “Legalization of Self-Defense Sprays Amendment Act” which allowed for a person 18 years of age or older to possess and use a self-defense spray to defend themselves or their property in certain circumstances.
The spray must be propelled from an aerosol container, labeled with or accompanied by clearly written instructions as to its use, dated to indicate its anticipated useful life and made of a mixture of a lacrimator of one of six specific chemicals.
The city clearly takes possession of mace seriously because the penalty is the same for illegal possession of a firearm — a whopping year in jail and $1,000 fine. Now I understand why Detective Kim assured me the cops wouldn’t arrest me if I used it.
The law is unclear on how one goes about registering mace, so I asked David LaBahn, president of the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, to help me interpret it.
“It is a misdemeanor to have self-defense spray in the District without registration,” he explained. “If you buy it in the District, then it must be registered and the vendor sends the form to MPD. However, if you buy in person outside of the District, there does not appear to be a like requirement. There is no explanation in the law for buying it online.”
I asked Mr. LaBahn if this self-defense spray regulation existed anywhere else in the country, and he said no.
“Various states have limitations on where to purchase it, the quantity and percentage of these sprays and bans on possession in close quarters like planes and trains,” the former prosecutor said. “Only the District requires that you register your spray.”
Once again, the right to self-defense is uniquely prohibited only in the nation’s capital. The process of buying pepper spray legally seemed so complicated, I let the idea drop as time passed since the scary call.
However, the more I thought about it, I wanted to find out how other residents like like me can defend themselves on the streets without access to guns.
NEXT IN THE SERIES (PART 3): Trying to register mace at the police department.
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 also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.