Pepper spray: is it legal or illegal in the UK - law on carrying non-lethal self-defence weapons explained

The murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa have highlighted the very real danger women can face simply walking down the street alone.

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In the year since the murder of Sarah Everard widespread calls have been made for more to be done to improve safety for women in public spaces.

After Sarah Everard’s murder the Metropolitan Police said it would deploy 650 extra officers and provide an increased police presence in areas considered hotspots for violence and harassment.

However, some women may feel they need to carry a non-lethal weapon such as pepper spray for protection and self-defence. But the likelihood is that doing so would likely land you in court.

Is it time to legalise pepper spray?Is it time to legalise pepper spray?
Is it time to legalise pepper spray?

Is it legal to carry pepper spray for self-defence?

No - as it stands it is against the law and is classed as a firearm and under the Firearms Act 1968.

Under section 5(1) (b) of the act possessing, purchasing or acquiring such an item which is designed or adapted “for the discharge of any noxious liquid, gas or other thing” is prohibited.

The penalty for possessing a firearm ranges from a discharge to 10 years in custody.

However, last year new sentencing guidelines for firearms offences came into effect.

As part of the guidelines a two stage culpability assessment needs to be carried out at sentencing. It looks at the weapon type - pepper spray is classed as a type three weapon in that it is non-lethal, while a weapon capable of killing two or more people at the same time or in rapid succession type one.

They would then look at factors such as if the weapon was used for criminal purpose, or is there was no use, or intent to use.

Who can use pepper spray and what does it do?

While having pepper spray is illegal in the UK, it can be and is used by law enforcement for crowd and riot control.

It is used by police via handheld cans that can reach up to four metres.

Pepper spray isn’t lethal, but causes an intense, temporary burning sensation that incapacitates its victim.

Likewise police can also use tasers, which are able to discharge an electrical current, and are also classed as a prohibited firearm.

Although civilians in the UK are banned from having pepper spray, it is classed as a self defence weapon in other countries such as Austria, Latvia and Slovakia.

A police officer holstering his Taser X26 during a training exercise. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA WireA police officer holstering his Taser X26 during a training exercise. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire
A police officer holstering his Taser X26 during a training exercise. Picture: Ben Birchall/PA Wire

Have there been calls to legalise it?

Yes and more than 35,000 people signed a petition last year to the UK Government and Parliament asking for the carrying of non-lethal self-defence weapons such as pepper spray to be legalised.

The petition is now closed, but it stated: “Guns and Knives are justifiably illegal to carry in the UK but criminals still manage to get hold of them to use, innocent people should be able to protect themselves with a non-lethal substitute.”

Meanwhile, other petitions have been started with two currently active on the UK Government petitions page asking for pepper spray to be legalised.

What does the UK Government say?

The UK has some of the toughest laws on firearms in the world. A statement from the Home Office responding to last year’s petition said the Government had no plans to make such sprays legal.

It said: “The Government is taking determined action to make our streets safer. But sprays containing noxious substances are dangerous and we have no plans to allow people to carry them for self-defence.

“In the wrong hands, items such as pepper sprays can be dangerous and cause serious injury. That is why their possession is prohibited under firearms law.

“It has been the view of successive governments for many years that the private possession of firearms, including sprays, or other weapons for personal protection is likely to lead to an increase in levels of violence. While an individual may wish to carry items for their own protection, we strongly discourage this as the item could itself be used against that person with serious consequences. Such items, if widely available to everybody, could be used to incapacitate people in order to carry out criminal acts.”

Is it legal to carry any weapons even for self-defence?

Carrying anything classed as an offensive weapon is illegal. Meanwhile, carrying a knife in public without good reason is also against the law - unless it’s a knife with a folding blade three inches long or less, for example a Swiss Army knife.

Using any knife in a threatening way, including a legal knife is illegal. Good reasons for having a knife include taking it to a gallery or museum to be exhibited, or taking knives you use at work to and from work.

Police UK says: “If you’re caught illegally carrying a knife or a gun, even an imitation one, you will be arrested and prosecuted. It’s no excuse to say it was for your own protection or you were carrying it for someone else.”

What legal self-defence products are there?

According to police the only fully legal self-defence products are rape alarms.

Although there are sprays specifically marketed as legal self defence sprays, West Yorkshire Police states on its website: ”There are other self-defence products that claim to be legal (e.g. non toxic sprays), however, until a test case is brought before the court, we cannot confirm their legality or endorse them. “

The force also advises that even though there are products which squirt a relatively safe, brightly coloured dye and should not cause injury if used in the way intended, it could be assault if it does.

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