Law bars most immigrants from carrying self-defense spray

Student discovered obscure provision, now seeks to repeal it

IT ISN’T EVERY DAY that a college student’s research leads to a bill being filed in the Massachusetts Legislature. But that’s exactly what happened when research conducted by Tony Tan, a student at Georgia Institute of Technology, found that Massachusetts law prohibits the possession of self-defense spray by most lawful immigrants.

 The penalty is imprisonment for up to two years and a fine of not more than $1,000. The only immigrants exempted from the penalty are green card holders and those who have been victims of domestic violence.

 “I think it’s unfair because lots of foreign students in Mass. have pepper spray. They could be potentially sent to two years in prison,” Tan said.

 Tan, who is originally from Belmont, reached out to the office of Sen. Will Brownsberger of Belmont. The senator decided to file legislation to repeal the law.

 “It’s just something that makes sense,” Brownsberger said. “Pepper spray is often something young women want to have when they’re out late at night. Any young woman should have access to that regardless of immigration status.”

 The senator said he hasn’t heard of any particular immigrants impacted by the law, but that it is “one of those smaller details in the law we need to correct to make sense.”

 Tan, a sophomore computer science and pre-law student, has filed public records requests with multiple state agencies, including the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, to see if anyone has come across an immigrant with legal residency who has been penalized or imprisoned.

 He is also researching whether other states have similar laws. “I haven’t looked at all 50 states, but so far I haven’t seen another law that prohibits immigrants from having pepper spray,” he said.

 In 2014, the Massachusetts Legislature voted to remove the Firearm Identification Card requirement in order for people to purchase, possess, or use pepper spray and other defensive sprays for self-defense. Now, anyone over the age of 18 can purchase and carry the spray without an FID card— except immigrants with temporary protected status, DACA, many work visas, asylum claims, and other legal statuses.

 Amy Grunder, director of legislative affairs for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, said her group supports the bill.

“The reason why we support the legislation is because [the current law is] obviously discriminatory,” Grunder said. “It leaves out immigrants who want to defend themselves who aren’t green card holders or have access to U-visas and T-visas, and aren’t victims of domestic violence.”

 She pointed out that many people with temporary protected status are employed by the cleaning industry and often work late at night. “If you’re a woman working late at night, this might be something you’d like to have. It seems to be some kind of oversight,” she said.