“As gun rights advocates push to legalize firearms on college campuses, an argument is taking shape: Arming female students will help reduce sexual assaults.”
When I saw these words printed in The New York Times, I assumed they were an ill-conceived editorial joke. Someone had decided to parody the gun lobby’s penchant for unevidenced non-sequiturs. The piece’s flippancy towards sexual assault seemed like edgy, but probably well-intentioned, satire. And then I realized the article was listed under “News.”
Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore puts the argument for arming female students like this: “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.” If girls have guns, they can shoot would-be rapists in self-defense. Would-be rapists do not want to get shot. Therefore, would-be rapists won’t rape, and the rate of sexual assault on college campuses will decline.
This reasoning gravely misstates the central drivers of campus rape. It also demonstrates the pervasive solipsism of the gun lobby, which seems incapable of separating gun rights from every other political issue. So, in order to disabuse gun enthusiasts of their absurd delusions, let’s take a look at how sexual assault really happens.
Expert consensus is that most rapists already know their victims. Shooting a stranger in a back alley is one thing. Shooting an acquaintance — and in some cases a friend — is quite another. Even when sexual assault occurs in a victim’s room, where she keeps her putative gun, this fact complicates matters. Could a woman in this situation reach for her gun? Perhaps. But would she? That isn’t a given.
Consider, too, that sexual assault sometimes begins with consensual sexual activity (this is one reason these cases are so ambiguous and challenging to adjudicate fairly). I’d guess that, generally, most people do not have sex while armed. So, if an encounter begins willingly but then turns ugly, what’s the likelihood a victim will be able to extricate herself in time to reach for a gun? Not terribly high.
These situational realities suggest arming women will not increase their safety as significantly as GOP lawmakers might hope. Gun apologists could of course protest that this policy still has some potential to protect women. But the most damning objection to guns on campus is this: They have a far higher potential to kill women and men than to save them.
There is a strong positive correlation between alcohol consumption and sexual assault. Imagine women begin bringing guns to parties. And imagine that, as per usual, they and their male counterparts have a bit too much to drink. Guns, alcohol, hormones all in one place. Why does this sound like a terrible idea?
Probably because, by the NRA’s own admission, it is. “Never use alcohol or over-the-counter, prescription or other drugs before or while shooting,” warn the NRA gun safety rules in a rare instance of social responsibility. Conservatives often stress the importance of personal responsibility and training to preventing gun accidents. By that logic, letting women — or men — bring loaded firearms to a party is absurd. What happens when an enterprising frat brother decides to borrow his date’s gun for an exciting new twist on beer pong? Or when a lonely, mentally ill youth shows up to the party, grabs a gun and opens fire on a crowd of drunk college students? What happens when the drunk college students try to fight back but can’t aim properly?
Such objections are too obvious for this to be an honest policy faux pas. Democrats, Republicans and sexual assault activists should not be afraid to call Ms. Fiore’s bill what it is: a despicable attempt to exploit an emotionally charged issue for political motives.
Controlling the quantity of alcohol consumed at parties, improving services for victims, encouraging dialogue about healthy sexual behavior — none of these things will stop sexual assault, but at least they get at its root causes. Guns will not disincentivize rapists — but they will magnify the consequences of alcohol-induced stupidity and make campus less safe for all students, not just women.
The gun lobby’s latest antics do not signify a newfound concern for women’s safety. They signify an appalling willingness to make a mockery of a serious issue. If gun apologists really care about stopping sexual assault, they should pursue relevant, well-informed legislation that will actually make a difference. They should not use sexual assault as pretext to push through their appallingly myopic agenda.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column usually runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.