Can I use my pocket sized can of spray-on deodorant as a weapon to defend myself?

Everyone wants to feel safe when strolling around in public, and to be able to protect their friends and family from danger should something nasty happen while you are out and about. I am sure everyone reading this can think of at least one time when they felt unsafe when walking home late at night, and I am also sure that many of you have experienced random acts of violence first-hand.

I am not ashamed to admit that, on many occasions when out with my dear wife, I have considered carrying something – anything – that I could bust out to protect her from danger if the situation required it.

Luckily, the laws of all states and territories protect me from myself (and others), by making it illegal to carry a weapon, or something that could be used as a weapon if you are in the right, or wrong, frame of mind.

But what is a weapon?

I am glad you asked because it gives me something to write about. And it is also an important question, with our laws doing their best to balance my right to protect myself and my wife from danger, with the right of everyone else to be protected from a crazy redheaded author who wants to carry a taser in his pocket.

Some of the laws in this area are very straightforward and sensible. Unlike the US, Australia has strict legal limits on gun sales and ownership. It is illegal to import, make, and use almost all types of firearms. Buying a gun is legal in some very limited circumstances, such as for farming use, but it is not like we can walk into our local Big W or K-Mart store and walk out with seven shiny shooters, one for each day of the week.

Of course, guns are not the only type of weapon out there. With a bit of creative thinking, almost anything could be used as, or converted into, a weapon. This makes the laws in this area confusing and somewhat contradictory. The law (rightly) says that it is illegal to carry a samurai sword in public, but that it is legal to carry an umbrella on a rainy day. But then, it is illegal to carry an umbrella if you intend to use it to poke someone’s eye out, or if you end up using it for this purpose even if that was not the reason you left home with it in the morning. See, it’s confusing!

What amounts to a ‘weapon’ therefore depends on what, specifically, you are carrying and how you intend to, or actually, use it.

If you are wondering if something in your pocket or bag is an illegal weapon, I suggest you do a check against the following four categories. If what you are carrying comes within one of these four categories, or you use it (or intend to use it) in a way that is covered by one of these four categories, you are likely carrying an illegal weapon and hence breaking the law.

OK, so do you have:

A ‘prohibited weapon’? – These are specific items that the law says are illegal and are created solely to hurt another person. Guns, grenades, tasers, missile launchers and similar instruments of destruction all fit into this category. Carrying or using these is straight-up illegal in almost all cases. The only exceptions are for people like police officers who are legally allowed to carry a gun and use it in specific circumstances, and for farmers who use a gun or some limited forms of explosives as part of their farming duties.

An ‘offensive weapon’? – These are things that, with the right can-do attitude, can be used as a weapon. Things falling into this category include golf clubs, baseball bats, walking canes, iron bars, or big bits of wood. Carrying them for a legitimate purpose is not illegal. Carrying them with the intention of using them to inflict harm on someone else is illegal. It is very hard to justify carrying a golf club at two o’clock in the morning in the Sydney CBD. Easier to justify if you are on the golf course.

Some form of ‘improvised weapon’? – These are everyday items that were never intended to be used as weapons but can still cause harm because of the way you use it. A good example is the keys in your pocket. They are very different to a baseball bat because, really, who thinks of a set of keys as a weapon? But if you make a fist around your keyring and let the keys poke out through your fingers like little knives, you’ve created yourself a form of weapon that would make Wolverine proud. Using these objects as improved weapons, or carrying them to use in this way, is illegal.

A bag-full of ‘adaptive improvised weapons’? – These are everyday objects that you have taught yourself (or have been taught by someone not to be messed with) to use as an instrument of destruction. For example, some people know how to use credit cards, belts, watches, pens, and so on as deadly weapons. Carrying these sorts of items is not illegal. Carrying them, adapting them in a way that means they can be used to cause harm to another person, and then using them to attack someone, is illegal. And really frightening.

Does this mean that we can’t carry anything that might, in one way or another, be capable of being used as a weapon or in self-defence?

Not quite.

In my bag right now, I have a phone, my wallet, and (please don’t laugh) a skipping rope that I used on the weekend to merrily skip down the road. Nothing in this list is a prohibited weapon, so I am in the clear so far.

If I was attacked on the street, I could use my skipping rope to defend myself (an improvised weapon), although furiously skipping on the spot, or even asking my assailants to hold each end while we do a jump-rope song (Charlie Chaplin went to France / To teach the ladies how to dance / First he did the Rumba / Then he did the twist / Then he did the Highland Fling / And then he did the splits) is probably not going to do very much to protect me from harm.

Instead, I could swing the rope at my attackers while slowly backing away, which is a reasonable response to being attacked and, all other things being equal, probably legal. This is because I’m using the rope as an improved weapon, but in a reasonable manner to defend myself against a real threat. Again, not illegal.

However, if I took that same rope, wrapped it around my attacker’s neck, and proceeded to slowly and pleasurably choke them, I would be: (a) crazy (a fact already established); (b) acting completely unreasonably; and (c) using an improvised weapon in an illegal way. Quite rightly, I would face criminal charges.

It’s probably not a great idea for me to give you too many ideas, but to take just one more example: let’s say I was attacked outside of my yoga studio by a fierce, flexible but unarmed pilates instructor who does not take kindly to those of us that prefer the beauty of yoga over the arrogance of pilates. If I quickly fished out my spray-on deodorant from my pocket (because of course that is where I keep it) and gave it a good spray in my attacker’s face before he – or she, of course – could hit me with a pilates mat, the law would say that I used an improvised weapon, but in a reasonable manner and for the self-defence of both myself and the sanctity of yoga. Not illegal.

Spraying my deodorant onto my lit cigarette lighter, to create a portable flamethrower, and using it to set the pilates instructor on fire is way out of proportion given the situation, especially as my attacker is unarmed and – let’s face it – a pilates instructor. If I reacted in this way I would probably face criminal charges and no longer be welcome at the yoga studio. Defending myself this way would be kinda cool, though. I mean, illegal. It would certainly be illegal. Very illegal. And fun.