No, More Campus Guns Won't Decrease Rape

Several members of various state legislators have trotted out the idea that what is missing from college campuses, particularly the hands of 18-year-old women, are six shooters, or even better, semi-automatic handguns.
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Three pistols laying on table with bullets
Three pistols laying on table with bullets

In all my years of doing research on ending campus sexual violence and leading a nonprofit organization toward that end, I never thought I'd be wading into a debate about guns. But fresh out of the truth is stranger than fiction department, here I am, having been quoted by numerous media sources about whether arming college women with more guns will help end rape. Surprise, there is no hard evidence that packing heat would decrease rape, and many reasons to believe that it would do more harm than good.

I'm neither pro-gun, anti-gun, nor pro-gun control per se. But I have been anti-rape for a long time. And I am growing weary of advocates for completely unrelated causes try to hitch their wagon into the recent media attention to the issue I have worked to bring to public light for some 23 years. Several members of various state legislators, no doubt looking for donations, publicity, reelection, or all of the above, have trotted out the idea that what is missing from college campuses, particularly the hands of 18-year-old women, are six shooters, or even better, semi-automatic handguns. I'd mention some of them, but to be honest, I don't want to give them any more publicity than they have already garnered under what I believe to be false pretenses.

The idea that arming college women will help prevent rape may have some appeal on its face. Hypothetically, if a woman carries a gun, a rapist will realize this and dash away. Or better yet, perhaps the perp will take a bullet through the groin. However, there are numerous reasons why this idea is ludicrous, dangerous, and reflects ignorance about how rape really happens.

I've talked at length to over 100 rape survivors. Not one has ever told me that they wished they had a gun to fight the rapist off. Not one has ever given a scenario where the presence of a gun on their part, in my view, would have changed whether or not they would experience sexual violence. In fact, I hypothesize that if some of them did have guns with them, a (more likely) larger, stronger, less inebriated male perpetrator would have successfully used that gun against the survivor to either inflict more pain or to kill them.

Think about it for a moment. Does a man who intends to rape a woman stand 50 feet away, and walk (or even run) toward a woman and say "I'm going to come over there and rape you?" Of course not. If that actually were the case, a potential survivor might well have time to reach in a purse for a gun and threaten the perpetrator with it. However, rape happens after a perpetrator skillfully invades a survivor's personal space, often weakens her defenses with alcohol, and may even initiate consensual behavior before ignoring the desires of the survivor to move forward. In the fog of alcohol-fueled consensual kissing or just relaxing on a couch, reasonable individuals don't hold a drink in one hand and a nine millimeter in the other. They are with someone they often trust. That is one of the horrible things about rape. It not only violates the survivor physically in the most horrific way, it also violates her sense of security of choosing to be around an individual she previously had reason to trust.

College campuses are unique environments. They contain large groups of 18-21 year olds (among others), many of whom live in close proximity. Few would doubt that alcohol use is rampant despite the laws against it. Inserting firearms into the mix -- unless held by trained security personnel -- would add more volatility to an environment already laden with developmental challenges and potentially mind-altering substances.

A great deal of research has been done on how rape tends to happen, who perpetrators target as potential victims, and what perpetrators are like. Our society would do well to learn to better understand how rape really happens, how adding guns to the mix would rarely solve a thing, and learning about the many studies showing just how rape is prevented.

In an era where state legislatures across the country are defunding higher education, perhaps they could shift their approach from gun advocacy to supporting research-based campus efforts to prevent rape. That would actually be a measure that could garner a big bang for the buck, instead of leaving the rest of us either banging our head against a wall at the ignorance of the 'more guns' idea and perhaps or suffering injuries even more serious than are already there.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

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