In recent months, gun lobbying groups have seized the media spotlight surrounding the college sexual assault crisis to renew their push for guns on campus, arguing that arming female college students is a viable solution to sexual assault. Just this week, Marion Hammer, a past president of the National Rifle Association who currently works as a paid NRA lobbyist, promoted the gun industry’s plan to force colleges and universities in Florida to allow students to carry guns by claiming that opponents of the measure are “engaged in a war on women.”
Hammer, one of the chief architects of the nation’s first Stand Your Ground law, appeared on the the NRA radio show Cam & Company on August 10 to tout the re-filing of a Florida law to allow guns on campus that died in the last legislative session. Her rationale? Hammer claimed that “a gun-free-zone campus” is “a sanctuary where criminals can rape and commit mass murder without fear of resistance,” adding, “Not only are opponents of this bill engaging in a war against the Second Amendment and self-defense, they are engaging in a war against women who need to be able to defend themselves against rape and physical violence on a college campus.”
The idea that defensive gun use could be an effective means of addressing sexual assault is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the problem at hand. From a public health perspective, this is a dangerous line of reasoning that not only ignores an extensive body of evidence documenting the strong correlation between higher rates of gun ownership and higher rates of violent crime, but also defies our collective knowledge about the nature of sexual assault and effective sexual assault prevention strategies.
The theory that women can protect themselves from sexual assault by carrying firearms perpetuates the myth that sexual assaults occur primarily at the hands of an unknown perpetrator. In actuality, the vast majority of sexual assault victims know their attacker and would not have thought of them as a potential threat. As previous studies have demonstrated, sexual assault among college students typically occurs in the context of a date, at either the man’s or the woman’s home, and is often preceded by consensual kissing. When the situation turns non-consensual, the assailant, who is overwhelmingly likely to be a man, often uses bodily force to restrain the victim, such as twisting the victim’s arms or holding her down. The opportunity for defensive gun use in these situations is severely limited.
“If you have a rape situation, usually it starts with some sort of consensual behavior, and by the time it switches to nonconsensual, it would be nearly impossible to run for a gun,” John D. Foubert, anti-rape activist and Oklahoma State University told the New York Times in February. That’s a best case scenario. There’s also a concern that allowing guns on campus would make it easier for rapists to rape: Get a girl to your room, start messing around, and when you want to attack, show her the gun you’re now allowed to have on campus.
In fact, based on what we know from decades of evidence in the general population, introducing guns to such a situation would almost certainly exacerbate the problem. Access to guns is considered to be “a potent predictor of a fatal assault” among female victims of domestic or dating violence. In fact, the mere presence of guns in abusive relationships has been found to greatly escalate the severity of the violence, increasing fatality by an estimated 500%. Even when firearms are not used to injure or kill, they are frequently used to coerce behavior, such as sex, or to instill terror in victims. In one study of female victims of intimate partner violence, more than 70% of women living in households with a gun reported that their partner had threatened to shoot/kill her with it. “This observation is important,” writes researcher Dr. Susan Sorenson, “because most intimate partner violence is ongoing, nonfatal abuse.”
Intense fear of one’s partner, associated with the risk for lethal violence, can also trigger maladaptive psychological responses that inhibit decision-making and coping responses, which in turn can make it more difficult to get out of an abusive relationship. Indeed, research shows that women’s risk of repeat victimization increases by more than 80% if her partner owns a gun. Furthermore, guns are rarely used by victims to fend off their attackers. Among women who have used a weapon successfully to defend themselves, less than 2% used a gun. Based on these findings, researchers estimate that a gun in the presence of an abusive relationship is more than 10 times more likely to be used by an abuser to threaten, intimidate, injure, or kill a victim than it is to be used by the victim in self-defense.
Recent evidence from college campuses appears to confirm what has already been observed in communities across the country: where there are more guns, there is more violent crime. A March 2015 study conducted by the Campaign to Keep Guns off Campus using FBI Uniform Crime Statistics and Clery Act data from 2004-2013 found that, on college campuses where concealed carry is allowed, violent crime rates actually rose while the student population declined. Of particular significance is that the rate of forcible rape on college campuses in Utah and Colorado is rising at an alarming pace, far exceeding the national average. After Colorado passed legislation allowing concealed firearms on all public college campuses in 2012, the prevalence of forcible rape increased by 25% in 2012 and 36% in 2013. In Utah, which in 2004 became the first state to pass campus carry legislation, the prevalence of rape on college campuses has steadily climbed over the past ten years, increasing by 50% between 2012 and 2013 alone. These statistics stand in stark contrast to the national average over the past ten years, which has been steadily decreasing at a rate of approximately 3% per year.
The push to use guns to address the sexual assault problem on college campuses also conveys a troubling message about who is responsible for preventing sexual assault. Efforts to reduce sexual assault, dating violence and stalking on campus have all too often focused on what women should or should not do to protect themselves (i.e., risk reduction methods instead of perpetrator-focused prevention programs). This approach “places undue burden on women, [and] implicitly communicates the condoning of inappropriate behaviors for men,” writes Juneau Mahan Gary, author of the book Campus Community Confronts Sexual Assault: Institutional Issues and Campus Awareness. To be effective, campaigns designed to prevent and eliminate violence against women must include programs that focus on potential offenders, who are almost exclusively men. By shifting the focus to defensive gun use, this approach places the burden of prevention on victims and allows the sociocultural and structural factors that perpetuate sexual assault to remain invisible and unchanged. Along the same line, the suggestion that women need guns to protect themselves from potential attackers reinforces traditional gender role stereotypes and implies that women are incapable of effective unarmed resistance, despite substantial evidence to the contrary.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the focus on using guns to address sexual assault among college students completely overlooks the critical role of colleges, communities, and bystanders in campus sexual assault prevention. Creating a safe campus environment presents a challenge to all institutions of higher learning, who are in a unique position to communicate to students that violence against women will not be tolerated. This critical “lesson” also carries with it an obligation — to use the educational arena to change the social norms that perpetuate violence against women. Using guns as a means of sexual assault prevention not only fails to address the underlying causes of the problem, but also reflects a startling degree of ignorance about the gendered reality of gun ownership and violence. While the gun-lobby is framing the push for campus carry legislation as a women’s issue, what they fail to mention is that the vast majority of gun owners, particularly on college campuses, are men. And where men have more guns, more women are victimized at the hands of armed men.
A professor at Florida’s Eckerd College summed it up succinctly during her testimony earlier this year at a hearing on campus carry in Florida: “Proponents will tell you that allowing concealed carry will protect female students from sexual assault. I will point out the obvious; you’ll be arming the assailants, too.”