I currently work for a low-income housing non profit. While being part of an industry that helps people in our community is rewarding, this regularly puts myself and my co-workers in contact with individuals experiencing crisis, whether mental health or substance abuse related. Despite occasional tense moments, we do our best de-escalating confrontations and negotiating solutions as best we can. Very rarely does anyone get hurt.
One exception took place several years ago at an apartment complex in our portfolio. A male resident barged into the leasing office with a baseball bat and struck the building manager over the head, knocking her unconscious. He then ran out and began assaulting other people nearby. Amidst this chaos, the manager recovered enough to retrieve a can of mace from her purse. She bravely intercepted the assailant and sprayed him down, incapacitating the man until police arrived.
Once she returned from a brief hospital stay, co-workers and residents congratulated this woman for quick thinking and resourcefulness that certainly prevented more serious injuries. Yet, our official corporate response was more subdued. An all-staff email reminded everyone that our employee agreement prohibited self defense instruments on company property. As one might imagine, this included firearms, but also pepper spray and electric tasers.
At the time, this sparked consternation, with several building managers openly declaring they would rather be fired than leave themselves defenseless. They pointed out how violent abusers stalk victims in many locations, workplaces included. Some women mentioned personally surviving domestic assault and how keeping a taser or pepper spray nearby was simply how they lived their lives now. Leaving self defense tools at home would create huge gaps in their personal safety… not just on site, but during commutes, plus any side trips or appointments along the way.
A damage control email quickly made the rounds, promising all field offices would soon have panic buttons installed under the desks. Some employees grumbled, pointing out any response would still be delayed, but in general, this declaration calmed things. After a couple months, I checked in with some managers, asking if their offices were set up yet. They grimly reported no. Perplexed, I questioned the head of maintenance, inquiring about progress. He responded vaguely, reporting that details were still being ironed out and assured me I’d be kept in the loop. More months went by…then years, and that was the last anyone heard about panic buttons as far as I’m aware.
So, what does this have to do with gun politics? Well, laws ostensibly regulating firearms sometimes reach much further than expected, just like workplace rules. Oregon Senate Bill 554, recently passed by the legislature reads:
166.370. (1)(a) Any person who intentionally possesses a loaded or unloaded firearm or any other instrument used as a dangerous weapon, while in or on a public building, shall upon conviction be guilty of a Class C felony.
The term “weapon” is defined by listing an array of objects including:
(c) Mace, tear gas, pepper mace or any similar deleterious agent as defined in ORS 163.211; (d) An electrical stun gun or any similar instrument;
Now, as everyone should be well aware, laws are not enforced equally. Regarding my earlier example, during an all-staff meeting following that incident, the head of HR reminded everyone about our policy against self defense items. I glanced over at one of the building managers who earlier voiced disagreement and sure enough, sitting on the table in front of her glinted a can of pepper spray clipped onto her key ring. Nobody said a damn thing.
It seemed moderately hilarious at the time, but looking back, highlights how privilege and bias play out. This building manager was a white woman, well regarded at our nonprofit after years of service, and clearly felt little concern over breaking a major company regulation while preserving her own sense of security. I absolutely support her in doing so, but also wonder about my other co-workers, Black and Brown women with similar safety concerns, yet less confident in their employment, who make personal risk equations every day. Which is more endangered right now? Their life or their job?
Likewise, as more locations adopt policies prohibiting many people’s self defense options, already marginalized populations necessarily feel the pressure more. Several years ago I received a tearful phone call from a friend in another city. She was sheltering in a public library after running from a man who had sexually assaulted her nearby. It seemed like an easy decision, but what if she had a mace canister buried in her backpack? Under SB 554, instead of finding sanctuary, she could now be a felon for violating laws promoted to the public as reducing gun violence. While my white co-worker might feel secure in authorities giving her a pass on that, in this case my friend hiding from her assailant was a Black woman, too afraid of the police to call 911.
None of these complications are discussed in major media accounts of SB 554. Instead it’s described only as a bill to mandate safe storage of firearms and allow greater restrictions on where guns can be carried. It’s understandable why people are concerned about these issues. Firearms remain a hot commodity for theft, and while hindering access in emergency situations is problematic, greater numbers locked up securely will hopefully reduce unauthorized access. Likewise, as someone who has faced down armed fascist groups on the streets many times, I understand more than most the knee-jerk impulse to ban firearms from public places.
Being a butch white man, personal safety is rarely a concern for me. Potential predators detect a hard target and cops see a buddy they’d probably enjoy some beers with. Yet among many women- or any less physically intimidating individuals, daily life often resembles an anxiety ridden obstacle course… taking inconvenient routes around dark streets, staying alert for signs an abusive ex is back in town or checking in with friends during dates. Large numbers of people I know habitually carry self defense spray. It’s unlikely anyone would support limiting their ability in doing so, yet SB 554 has done this with virtually no discussion. We can argue about gun control… but when the safety of our most vulnerable neighbors is compromised as a byproduct, only dangerous abusers benefit.