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.