On Campus: Arming or Harming?

The New York Times ran an article last week about 10 state legislatures that are proposing laws that would allow students to carry guns on campus. Michele Fiore, the author of the Nevada bill, said: “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” 

From the perspective of an organization that has been teaching effective self-defense for 30 years, the idea of arming students to stop sexual assault is infuriatingly misguided. 

The belief that arming woman will stop sexual assault relies on perpetuating the myth that rape is committed by strangers lurking in bushes and dark alleys. The vast majority of sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and in most cases someone she will likely continue to have contact with in one way or another. On a college campus that might be a boyfriend, a professor or teaching assistant, or a friend.  

In these situations, rape is often accomplished at least in part by the rapist exploiting social and power dynamics to gain compliance. Expecting a woman to shoot a friend, boyfriend, or professor when he is relying on these dynamics to rape her is unrealistic, to say the least. Not to mention the fact that she is alone with the assailant because she trusts him; why would she have her gun handy in that situation?

Another problem with this idea is that when guns are present, they are used against women far more often than they are used by women to defend themselves. Citing a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, the Violence Policy Center concludes that  “handguns don't offer protection for women, but instead guarantee peril.” Colleges can’t legalize only women to carry weapons (not that that appears to be the goal of any of these bills). Allowing college students to carry guns means allowing the very group of people who are committing the rapes to suddenly have lethal force at their disposal to accomplish the act. 

Also, when women use guns to defend themselves, they are often arrested and charged with assault with a deadly weapon, attempted murder, or murder. And, if the attacker ends up dead (a high likelihood, if shot at close range) the woman who did the shooting is going to have to articulate why she believed her life was in danger, or at the least why she didn’t think she had another, less lethal option. Historically and still, if women do not have cuts, bruises and maybe a broken bone or two, it isn’t “rape rape” and even if it is, every state requires that lethal force only be used to prevent great bodily harm or death.

There is yet another potential harm that laws like this could cause. Allowing students to carry guns would become still one more way to blame victims when they are sexually assaulted. The argument would go something like this: “If he was really trying to rape you, why didn’t you shoot him? It’s your own fault if you weren’t carrying a gun and prepared to kill a fellow student (or your professor, or your friend’s boyfriend, or . . .).”

It is difficult to see these proposals as anything other than a cynical attempt by gun advocates to exploit a serious issue. Some of the loudest voices at the moment in the discussion of sexual assault on campus are those bemoaning the idea that a young man could be expelled even if there hasn’t been a criminal trial in which he was found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of rape. Where are those voices in opposing these bills? If the concern is truly due process, that concern should be resoundingly amplified when legislators are proposing that women simply shoot someone who is assaulting them.

In short, the proposal to allow students to carry guns on campus is just another way of clinging to common myths about rape (strangers jumping out of bushes, blaming the victim if she doesn’t fight back in approved ways) while avoiding dealing with a real problem in a constructive, effective way.

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