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By Madhu Ramankutty
August 5, 2013
Photo credit to Pew Research Center
Credit : BrickHouse Security

A tattoo-covered, rat-tailed, bulky-armed, middle-aged, Vermont libertarian once asked me, “What are you going to do when you get raped in an alley? You think the government is gonna come save you?”

Leaving aside his misguided assumption that my rape was inevitable, the question wasn’t all that absurd. It’s a situation that many gun-rights advocates hypothesize, and their answer to the question is pretty straightforward: buy a gun, learn how to shoot the gun, and use that gun when you need it. These same people argue that gun-ownership can actually prevent the massacres we saw at Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Newtown. Guns act as a deterrent, they say: If the teachers at Sandy Hook had had weapons, not only could they have shot Adam Lanza, but also Lanza wouldn’t have even dared to attack knowing that the teachers would be armed.

Okay, maybe arming schoolteachers is an outlandish idea. But I get it. Really, I do. The world is a scary place, and dangers are everywhere. So why shouldn’t responsible gun owners be allowed to carry weapons for self defense?

And public polling shows that the number one reason that gun owners own guns is to protect themselves from danger. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2013, 48 percent of gun owners owned guns for protection, 39 percent for hunting and shooting, and 2 percent because of the constitutional guarantee. The vast majority of gun-owners own lethal weapons because of the tangible benefits: it makes them feel safer. Not because of some vague and ambiguously worded constitutional right.

Photo credit to Pew Research Center

Photo: Pew Research Center

But why guns?

Why not tasers? Why not tranquilizers? Why not stun guns? Why not… pepper spray? Why not some non-lethal method of self-protection—something that would stun my attacker, and provide time for me to escape and call the police to have him arrested, jailed, and tried in court? My attacker would remain alive, and his guilt and punishment would be determined by the American justice system—not Madhu the Vigilante.

I found this question particularly relevant a few weeks ago, during the height of the George Zimmerman trial, when the jury found Zimmerman to have acted in self-defense. But I wonder: does a right to self-defense involve a right to take away another’s life? Or does a right to self-defense simply mean a right to your own life, a right from harm, a right to run away and save yourself? We have all heard that well-loved phrase: “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” Sorry, it’s a fact, guns do kill people—Zimmerman’s gun killed Trayvon Martin—but stun guns and tasers and mace do not.

I find especially odd the inconsistencies within America’s self-defense and weapons laws. The security tech firm, Brickhouse Security, recently released an infographic titled “Less Lethal Weapons” (below) that compares the laws regarding lethal and non-lethal weapons in different American states. It reveals the incredibly tight restrictions or outright bans on non-lethal, defensive weapons (like pepper-spray and tasers) in many states; at the same time, not a single state has a complete ban on gun ownership.

Yet, non-lethal weapons are just as effective as typical handguns: in less than half a second, stun guns and tasers cause intense muscle spasms and extreme disorientation. They can be used from a distance (the $300 Taser International C2 can be used from as far away as 15 feet) and cause no permanent damage or long-term consequences. Which is great, because there is a reason that victims don’t decide sentencing or punishment in American trials. In fact, in this country, neither guilt nor innocence exists independently of the legal system—and everyone deserves a fair trial before they’re rendered deserving of the death penalty. By shooting a lethal bullet into the heart of an attacker, a victim sentences their aggressor to death before they’ve been granted their sixth amendment right to a fair trial.

But then why aren’t these non-lethal weapons as easily available? How am I allowed the right to kill someone, but not right to plain and simple self-defense? Shouldn’t we be defending not a right to bear arms, but a right to bear pepper-spray?

So, to the angry libertarian guy with stretched-out and faded tattoos: What am I going to do if I feel threatened by a man following me down a dark alley? Since I’m from Virginia, maybe I’ll keep some pepper-spray in my bag, guaranteeing myself exactly the legal rights I’m afforded, without threatening the rights and lives of another.


This article originally appeared in The Princeton Progressive Nation a student publication at Princeton that receives funding and training as a member of the Generation Progress journalism network.

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