As college students head off to classes, the topic of sexual violence is back in the limelight and efforts to deal with it will once again be front and center. Those of us who matured in an earlier era are appalled to learn that such violence is a significant problem on our nations' campuses - both because it happens at all in what we assume is a protected place and because the treatment of victims has been atrocious in so many cases.
But the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allies have been trumpeting the solution: the right to carry concealed weapons on campus. In addition to a federal concealed carry bill, NRA-backed bills have been introduced in at least 15 states that would force public colleges and universities to allow individuals to carry concealed, loaded guns on campus. The legislation passed in one state -- Texas -- but doesn't go into effect until next year.
Opposition on campus is strong - nearly 80 percent of students in a 2013 survey said they would not feel safe if concealed weapons were allowed on campus, and more than nine of ten faculty members agreed. That is small comfort to public colleges and universities, who may be forced by state legislatures to allow concealed weapons and, incidentally, spend millions more on campus security as a result.
The truth is that young men and women arrive on campus with a legitimate expectation that their social life will not be toxic - that their classmates have been selected for their ability to do college work and that their membership in the campus community assumes a base line commitment to morality and ethics. Sexual assault is all the more devastating because it happens in an insular community that is supposed to be a safe place - an ivory tower, or at the very least a community of basically like-minded individuals intent on earning a degree that prepares them for life after graduation.
So when victims find that the perpetrators of violence against them are indeed members of the campus community like them - people they know from class or dormitory life, from social gatherings and extracurricular activities - it is all the more traumatizing. Perpetrators are also people their friends know, people their teachers know. That familiarity is unsettling and even frightening when victims find themselves attending class and campus events or even living in dormitories with their attackers. And the guilt or innocence of those accused of sexual assault is usually determined in a quasi-judicial campus proceeding that lacks due process and can leave victims feeling the trauma of their assault has been replayed, only with a false veneer of grown-up justice.
As we now know, colleges and universities sweep these cases under the rug so as not to affect their federal funding or future college admissions. In far too many instances, sexual assault survivors are left without justice, avenues for further legal redress, and opportunities to escape their attackers as the latter often continue to walk freely on campus. Survivors lose hope and find few options other than leaving school. At every turn sexual assault survivors continue to be victimized.
Adding guns to this mix is truly an appalling idea. The weapon of choice in campus sexual assault is often alcohol - 79 percent of reported campus assaults involved alcohol. Sometimes alcohol masks a drug secretly added to a drink to render the victim unconscious or nearly so. Sometimes alcohol, known to loosen inhibition, emboldens assailants. In other cases force or coercion develops in a social setting, where the woman or man finds a friendly encounter turning into forced sex without consent - rape. In fact 90 percent of college sexual assaults are committed by someone the victim knows, and one-third are perpetrated by intimate partners.
So the likelihood that someone will be able to, or want to, pull out a gun to threaten their attacker on Saturday night who sits next to then in English lit on Monday is remote. The chances that a man, for example, truly intending harm will be able to get a gun away from a woman are high. The entire scenario is rife with fantastical assumptions, even if one assumes gun-carriers are trained in the use of their weapons and are willing to kill to avoid rape. In the meantime, the availability of guns on campus, especially mixed with alcohol, will likely lead to more suicides and even homicides.
Ending sexual assault on campus is a multi-faceted task. It begins with engendering an atmosphere of respect for women in particular, a cultural shift that calls on men and women to become part of the solution, to intervene against assault and to disrupt situations that lead to assault. It means rejecting attempts to arm campus personnel and allow concealed carry on campuses. It requires a system of justice that is transparent and fair to both victim and alleged perpetrator, on campus or off. And it requires preservation of the sense of a community that rejects violence.