Women in Cologne are snapping up pepper spray | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 18.01.2016
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Women in Cologne are snapping up pepper spray

Following the sex assaults on women in Cologne and Hamburg on New Year's Eve, the demand for pepper spray and stun guns has surged in Germany. Experts warn of a feeling of false security.

Germans are snapping up pepper spray, gas pistols, stun guns and powerful flashlights even more than they already had been in the wake of the November terror attacks in Paris.

Demand for over the counter self defense products rose in response to the massive sex assaults and thefts in downtown Cologne and Hamburg on New Year's Eve. Pepper spray has been occasionally sold out in some stores. On Amazon, it's available for between 9 euros ($9.81) and 27 euros, including a small spray can shaped like a pink lipstick tube. Frankonia, Germany's leading supplier for hunters and marksmen, declined to give details of recent sales developments.

Freely available

Personal security issues have clearly increased over the past two weeks since the mass assaults on hundreds of women, said Katrin Streich, a psychologist and deputy head of the Darmstadt-based Institute for Psychology and Threat Management (IPBM).

The run on pepper spray and guns that shoot blanks is understandable, she told DW. "It's an attempt to regain control in a situation where people feel they are no longer in control, and no longer protected." But the psychologist warned that self-defense products easily give people a false sense of security.

It's a question of "subjective safety versus objective safety," Streich said.

Just because a woman has pepper spray doesn't mean she's safe: for one, the spray may be lodged in the depths of her handbag, and then, she may be hesitant to use it, or not familiar with handling it.

two women grappling

Self-defense classes for women are booming in the wake of the Cologne sex assaults

Dangerous dynamics

Carrying self-dense products might help boost self-confidence, Streich argued, but it also raises the potential for threatening situations to escalate.

The psychologist suggested simple but effective measures, such as making a mental note of escape routes and exits when in crowded spaces, discussing potential procedures with the group one is with beforehand, and visualizing how one might react in a concrete situation. Self-defense classes are another option, she said - if only to strengthen a woman's self-confidence.

Signing up for self-defense

"Right after New Year's Eve, we had five times as many registrations for women's self defense classes as usual," said Josef Werner, who runs the Silla Martial Arts School in Cologne.

Asked about the wisdom of using self defense products, the instructor told DW that simply carrying a can of pepper spray won't do the trick.

"You have to be prepared to switch from an instinctive escape mode to a more aggressive mode of attack," he said. "You need the know-how, and you need to be prepared to use the weapon."

Since New Year's Eve, 304 people in Cologne have applied for a so-called "small weapons license" that authorizes the user to carry a pistol and revolver for shooting blanks, gas and signaling ammunition, according to police spokeswoman Daniela Lindemann. A total of 4,857 such licenses are currently registered in Cologne and neighboring Leverkusen, with 408 licenses issued last year, she told DW.

The Green party, meanwhile, is urging stricter weapons laws in Germany in response to reports about greater demand for over the counter self-defense products. "Weapons legislation concerning purchases of pistols and revolvers for shooting blanks, gas and signaling ammunition is too lax," Irene Mihalic, a member of the Greens on parliament's interior committee said, adding that the government must prevent people from arming themselves to take matters into their own hands. "The Wild West is not our model," the Greens politician said.

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