Rape on Campus: Guns Are Not the Answer

Several days ago, the Miami Herald published an editorial from a college student who argued that allowing students on college campuses to carry concealed weapons was not only a constitutional right but would help prevent rape. While I appreciate her passion for the subject and am saddened to read about anyone’s victimization, this position is deeply problematic. I don’t wish to take up the constitutional argument here, but I cannot in good conscience fail to respond to the argument that a woman with a gun can prevent a rapist from sexually assaulting her.

First, studies do not bear out that arming women helps prevent sexual assault or domestic and dating violence. In part, this is because most frequently sexual assault occurs within a dating relationship. Since most victims are not only “acquainted” with their assailant but are actually in a relationship of sorts with them, it is unlikely that they will arm themselves with a weapon before heading out for the night with their partner. Thus the weapon would do no good.

Further, since most sexual assaults occur when students (both offenders and victims) are under the influence of alcohol, having a gun involved is unlikely to make things better. In fact, numerous studies have found that guns actually make the situation worse. Far worse. Even when the disinhibiting and aggression-promoting effects of alcohol are not a factor. Studies show that women are far more likely to be murdered with a handgun than kill a stranger in self-defense. In fact, 300 times more likely. Rape rates are consistently higher in states where gun ownership is also higher. A woman is 83 times more likely to be killed by an intimate partner than to kill him in self-defense. The presence of a gun in a domestic violence situation has been estimated to increase the risk of homicide (to the victim of sexual attack, largely) 500 percent. Because of our easy access to guns, a woman in the U.S. is 11 times more likely to be murdered with a firearm than are women in other high-income countries. I could go on, but there’s no need. Data is entirely clear on this issue: Guns are far more likely to be used against victims of sexual assault than by them, escalating harm instead of attenuating it.

Add to the equation that allowing concealed weapons on campus can only confuse the first responders, who don’t know the context or details of the situation, and will inevitably incite fear and trepidation amongst other faculty and students who worry about nervous people packing heat, and the result is a powderkeg that is based on rhetoric, not reality.

But, the rhetoric is powerful and backed by the full financial and propaganda power of the National Rifle Association (NRA). For instance, one Nevada lawmaker asserted earlier this year that “young, hot little girls on campus” should arm themselves to prevent being raped. Not only do her comments reek of very odd sexism, they also promote a very dangerous form of victim-blaming which suggests that it is not the responsibility of rapists to resist offending but rather the would-be victim from being a target. We will never end rape when we continue to tell women it is their responsibility to avoid it. There is only one culpable party to any rape: the rapist.

In Florida, State Representative Dennis K. Baxley argued, “If you’ve got a person that’s raped because you wouldn’t let them carry a firearm to defend themselves, I think you’re responsible.” If Baxley wanted to reiterate the responsibility of campuses to prevent rape that would be fantastic, but that is not the case. Instead, he also took blame from the perpetrators by holding accountable everyone but the rapist.

What campuses need to do is address the fact that rape is a crime that offenders choose to commit because they are immersed in the broader rape culture. Programs, policies and laws that put the ownership for change on victims play into this very culture, and as such, can never be truly effective. Rather than changing the perceived target, we need to change the motivation of the offender. The best programs address the nuances of relationships, focus on helping people set boundaries and communicate effectively with one another, and help others learn and be motivated to stand up and speak up when they see or hear something that is potentially dangerous. Let’s move from rhetoric to reality so that we can actually prevent rape on campus.

Laura Finley, Ph.D., teaches in the Barry University Department of Sociology & Criminology and is syndicated by PeaceVoice.