BY ANNA IRRERA
On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a $43.85 pink pepper spray gun. Odd as this choice of gift may sound- even compared to piping pipers and milking maids- pepper spray sellers say the holiday season is their busiest time of year. “We have a big surge of sales from the end of November to the third week in December, but not because of a seasonal increase in crime,” said Alan Kaufman of Self Defenses Inc., a wholesale supplier in Midtown Manhattan. “Our market research says that pepper spray is used as stuffing for stockings. We find that men buy it for women, although we have an ever increasing number of men buying for themselves as our product has become more powerful.”
Similarly, Safeguard Self Defense LLC, a company based in Upper Montclair, NJ, which sells through Pepper Spray Store.com, has found that pepper spray is a popular gift. “Both the holidays and just as college starts are our busiest times,” said Meg Awtrey from Safeguard Self Defense, LLC.
Capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray, is derived from the fruit of plants like chilis. Although Megyn Kelly of Fox News recently likened it to a “food product,” when discussing the spraying of student protestors by the police at UC Davis on November 18, pepper spray is considered a weapon in many European countries, including the United Kingdom, and its use is subject to restrictions even in the United States. It can cause temporary blindness, pain, breathing problems and panic. “When it’s used excessively, it can kill,” reads a warning on the Pepper Spray Store website.
In New York, pepper spray can only be bought within the state at authorized dealers: pharmacies or gun dealers. According to section 265.20 of New York Penal Law, customers must show I.D. to prove that they are over the age of 18 and are required to complete a form with name, address, birth date and signature. Pepper spray cannot be sold to those with a history of felony convictions or assaults.
“We have to keep the forms on file, like for medical prescriptions,” said Juan Camacho, who works at Arrow Pharmacy at 883 Ninth Avenue.
The law also requires “self-defense spray devices” to be accompanied by an insert which includes directions for use, first aid and safety information. “We tell customers to judge the situation and only use it as a last resort,” said Camacho. “There must be an element of surprise to avoid that it gets taken and used on you. I advise them to see if there is anything else they can do like scream and get the attention of anyone around them.”
Pepper spray cannot be legally mailed to any city or county in New York, but as it can be shipped to other states, numerous websites offer a wide selection of products. Prices vary according to design and quantity; from $1.99 for pen pepper sprays to $ 48.95 for Kimber pepper blaster guns. The only type of self-defense spray that can be mailed into New York is animal pepper spray, which contains a lower concentrations of the active ingredient and is intended for use against bears and dogs.
Some websites, like Safeguard Self Defense LLC and Self Defenses Inc., caution against local restrictions. “Our site does allow an order for pepper spray shipping to New York go through the checkout process,” said Sally Morris a spokesperson for Safeguard Self Defense, LLC. “However, once that order reaches customer service for actual shipment, they contact the customer letting them know the shipping restrictions and what products are/aren’t allowed.”
Sellers on Amazon however, do not warn customers with a New York mailing address that products such as a bright pink Mace pepper gun cannot be legally shipped. The website allows customers to proceed to checkout, at which point, according a customer service representative, “If the item isn’t eligible to ship to a certain address you’ll receive a message saying so when entering the address.”
Another Amazon customer service agent contacted the seller As Seen on TV Products and said she was told that the pink Mace pepper gun could, indeed, be shipped to New York. And a third agent said, “Anything that is our on our website can be shipped.”
On the other hand, a Mace customer service representative said, “None of our products can be shipped to New York.”
Other sellers might apply Safeguard Self Defense LLC’s policy, allowing checkout on Amazon and then contacting the buyer once the order is being processed.
“Some of these other stores may do that very same thing or there is a possibility that they are unaware of the law or choose to not follow it,” said Morris. “It is hard to say which one of these it is without actually trying to make an order to New York yourself.”
Although the idea of giving it a try might seem tempting, the consequences may not be worth it. “If you are caught with a product not bought from an authorized dealer, you are subject to a class B misdemeanor. The seller would also be violating the law because he is selling it illegally,” said Kauffman.