Is pepper spray legal or illegal in the UK? Law on carrying non-lethal self-defence weapons explained

The Met Police are being asked to explain how they will prevent violence against women after Wayne Couzens is sentenced for the murder of Sarah Everard

The brutal kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard as she walked home has sparked discussion over women’s safety in public spaces.

The Metropolitan Police has said it will deploy 650 extra officers and provide an increased police presence in areas considered hotspots for violence and harassment.

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But the murder of Ms Everard, whose killer Wayne Couzens was handed a whole life order, and that of Sabina Nessa, has highlighted the very real danger women can face simply walking down the street alone.

However, carrying a non-lethal weapon such as pepper spray for protection and self-defence would likely land you in court.

A message is seen among the flowers on Clapham Common where floral tributes were placed for Sarah Everard (Photo: Getty)

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, earlier this 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 Wire

Have there been calls to legalise it?

Yes and 35,617 people signed a petition 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.”

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 the 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.”

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

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