Guns and Pepper Spray


My husband is an Iraq War veteran, part of a demographic known for their firearm collections. A few years ago, he was interviewed for a veteran survey, and one of the inquiries was about what sort of weaponry he still possessed. He admitted that he does own one gun: a Red Ryder BB gun. The interviewer paused a moment, then burst out laughing. It was a response he was not expecting.

We found the BB gun abandoned in the university arboretum years ago, and yes, we took it home and fired a few for-fun shots. Since then it’s sat largely abandoned in our garage, save for one time when an opossum was lurking in our chicken coop. As Quakers, guns are not an alternative to us; we do not want a tool of destruction in our household or community.

Two summers ago, I traveled a few hours to northern Wisconsin to attend a week-long teaching conference. The location was known for its rivers and camping, and, already owning a vintage Vanagon camper, camping was the obvious option. And yet, as a woman, I haven’t done a lot of solo traveling. Immediately, it was obvious that a woman alone is a rare thing. As I filled out the campsite slip, set up my camper, and made a fire, I was instantly approached by a man asking loudly, “Are you staying here all alone?” “Um, well, my friend will be arriving shortly,” I white-lied. Still, it set me on edge.

Days later, the conference—which was a condensed, fast-track certification course—was scheduled to conclude on Friday night at 10:00 p.m. only to begin again the next morning at 7:00 a.m. I debated whether to travel back to the campground, 18 miles away, and decided I might as well sleep in my camping van there at the conference site. I had parked within a hundred yards of the conference center door and closed my curtains to the all-night flood lights to catch some sleep. It was a hot night, so the windows were cracked to let cross air in. I woke sometime later to raucous, obviously inebriated voices outside my windows. “You think anyone’s in there?” “Yeah man, the curtains are pulled, I betcha.” I felt their presence beyond the walls and lay still, heart pounding. In the morning sun, I had the distance to realize that they were a drunken, silly group and probably not ill-willed. Still, my only defense would have been the delayed help of a 911 call.


This experience sat with me as I needed to return three more times for classwork to finish my certification and still was not convinced of a pricey hotel room expenditure for the week’s stay. We are people of peace. Years of these contemplations, reading, and practice have rendered me awful even at snowball fights. I simply do not like to hurt others. And yet, what are we to do about self-defense?

I wondered about pepper spray. Perhaps this could be a Middle Way for me, though I had no idea even where to purchase this product. I started at a Walmart mega store, where one can purchase diapers, a gallon of milk, bathroom mats, .22 rifles, handguns, and all types of ammunition. But pepper spray—I learned when I inquired—is not on the shelves. I admit I guffawed out loud, and the salesperson standing in front of the case of handguns did not share the irony.

So I continued my search, half-heartedly, as I entered stores for other shopping reasons. Finally, at a sporting goods store, I found a small two-ounce canister for $16.50. My hands shook as I took it to the checkout, still morally unsure of this purchasing decision. The clerk did not make any disproving gesture, and I exited into the bright sun with unease.

Pepper spray of 10 percent—derived from hot pepper oil—is legal in all 50 states. Mace is classified as a tear gas and is not. Both products burn and choke the eyes and throat, but curiously, mace does not affect humans under the influence. Mace has a different makeup from pepper spray, composed of a white crystal suspended in a delivery medium such as sec-Butanol, along with various other chemicals. Both render extreme pain. Both have been documented to kill people. In January 2014, a 24-year-old man who was restrained and pepper sprayed by cops in a Detroit mall complained of chest pains and the inability to breathe before finally succumbing. A prisoner in the San Francisco Bay Area died hours after guards sprayed him in his cell. Pepper spray is classified as a weapon in all 50 states.

In the Sermon on the Mount, the Great I Am stated the following concerning retaliation:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also; and if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to him who begs from you, and do not refuse him who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:38–44 RSV)

Turning the other cheek doesn’t sound like it involves spraying the other until it burns in agony.


When I was a child, I would play a nameless game in which I would test myself to what I could kill. Slapping a mosquito was easy; stepping on an ant hill was doable. Cutting an earthworm in half was unnerving but redeeming as both sides still squirmed with life. Pulling the legs from a daddy longlegs was fascinating but made me a little queasy. Then, once, I smashed a snail with a rock, just to see. And that was my threshold; I felt ill and wrong all day thereafter.

As people of peace, self-defense is a gray area. There is even wild debate on this topic from our great peace leaders. In The Mind of Mahatma Gandhi, we learn the Mahatma allows that in defending one’s self or family, violence may have its place. Remembering his near-death experience with an attempted assassin, he counseled his son to defend him in case of a repeat experience. He said: “I do believe that, where there is only a choice between cowardice and violence, I would advise violence.” In a separate essay, he elaborates: “Under violence, there are many stages and varieties of bravery. Every man must judge this for himself. No other person can or has the right.”

I still have the pepper spray; it remains housed in the hard plastic packaging it came in. To open, it would require tough scissors and a few minutes time—I suppose not unlike the barrier of a gun case. This one extra step would likely render such a defensive weapon useless. I cannot say how I would react if attacked, perhaps the animal in me would struggle, would fight for my survival, would impose pain on my inflictor in any way possible. And if I were able to call the police force, would I just be outsourcing my violence? I pray to never learn these answers.

But something about the purchase of a weapon crossed a different threshold for me: the pepper spray was my snail. I was preemptively guarding myself against an evil within people in whom I’d previously looked for the best. Is it possible to walk cheerfully over this world with something intended as a weapon in one’s pocket? For me, I do not believe it is.

Seres Kyrie

Seres Kyrie lives in the Driftless Area of Wisconsin with her family. She is a member of Madison (Wis.) Meeting.

7 thoughts on “Guns and Pepper Spray

  1. I had a similar scary camping-alone experience. My campsite was next to that of an insomniac man who had been left by his church in the campground for a week to dry out. As he tromped around my tent all night gathering firewood, I realized my only defense would be to shine my flashlight in his eyes if he came to the door of my tent. I slept with my flashlight on my chest and moved my campsite the next morning. I never had to resort to “holding my annoying neighbor in the light.” The park employee laughed when I asked him why he put me at the space next to Mr. Insomniac in an almost empty campground. The laugh was scarier than my neighbor.

  2. I wrestle with this, as do many Friends. My wife, an Episcopalian, does not share my struggle; indeed, she would not hesitate to resort to violence if someone were to threaten her or our children. (I presume I might also be on that list.)

    By extension, I also struggle with someone committing an act of violence on my behalf. If I call 911 and the responding officer acts violently to save me, how does this absolve me of any responsibility for the act?

  3. The quote from Jesus is typically misunderstood as saying to be a “door mat”. I read a book some years ago by a well known Christian writer. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the author or title. The writer said that to understand the quote you have to know the implications of the actions in the society at the time.

    If someone hits you on the cheek it would be the left cheek because hitting with the left hand (that’s the one that…) was considered very bad. Offering the right cheek would force him to use his left hand.

    If someone sued you in court and was awarded your coat, giving him your cloak too would leave you practically naked and he would be humiliated because taking someone’s clothes and leaving him naked was also a bad thing.

    It was legal at that time for a Roman soldier to ask a Jew to carry his pack for one mile, but more than one mile was forbidden. By carrying the pack for two miles you potentially get the soldier in trouble.

    The point is that Jesus did not recommend violence, but he did recommend taking action that would make the other look bad in the society. Hardly a roll over response.

    I don’t know what he would have said about pepper spray that he would have never dreamed of, but I am not so sure he would be opposed in cases of real danger. Although pepper spray has rarely caused a death, it is certainly not intended too, and aside from such rare cases, does not have a lasting effect.

  4. Thank you so much for sharing your inner wrestling over this. I’ve never quite been able to say 100% that I’m a Quaker, because I just don’t know where I stand on self-defense. (Or using violence to defend children.) Just to see someone else’s concerns made plain is a gift. Thank you again.

  5. I attend Quaker meetings and love them,, mostly all non programmed meetings. I have always had guns, shotguns in high school and college for skeet and trap events, never for hunting or killing, and as an older man, many pistol competitions. I also have a concealed weapons permit that allows me to carry a concealed handgun in 26 states. I rarely do carry the gun concealed . But in living in the south most of my life I have had guns pulled and pointed at me three times, and one of those times the man actually pulled the trigger through twice and the gun did not fire. I never want to kill anyone, but if I had to use the gun for self defense I would not shoot to kill, I would shoot to injure . I also have, and give away for gifts, several small concealable cans of pepper spray. The best place to get them is Harbor Freight, very affordable, and they shoot a stream, not a spray. A spray does not travel far and can flow back and hurt you just as much as anyone you might aim for. Yes, as a person with a belief in the power of non violence carrying a weapon is a conflict, but self defense is not senseless organized violence like war. My grandmother who lived to be 92 taught me how to shoot, and she kept her Colt 38 Special pistol in her nightstand every night, as a woman who lived alone for many years. That pistol gave her peace of mind, and I have no doubt she would have used it to protect herself, and her family. Nice to see this timely issue discussed here. And, as any martial artist or bodyguard would tell you, the best weapon for self defense is the brain,,, it should always be used to avoid any dangerous situation. When a dangerous situation begins, we have already made a mistake by not being careful enough about our surroundings or agendas . Peace. It is so possible.

  6. As someone deathly allergic to capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper spray, I have always avoided any protests where I feel it could possibly be sprayed. In turn, that has made me wonder: how could I use something that would literally kill me on someone else? If it is a deadly weapon when used on me, I have to think of it as one if used by me.

    That leaves me with no real options for defense, but I always try to remember that crime statistics are lower than ever, people are almost always wonderful (or at least ambivalent towards me), and I can still put faith in my mind and words to keep me out of dangerous situations in the first place.

    (Please do not print in the magazine. Thanks!)

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