Yet Another Thing Guns Can't Solve

The GOP is worried about women’s safety on campus. Or at least that’s what they’d have you believe of late, howling in protest at Colorado state Democratic representative Joe Salazar’s clumsy remarks about callboxes, and calling out the University of Colorado for teaching young women to vomit, pee, or tell an assailant they have their period in order to avoid rape

And they’re right: Neither call boxes nor vomit are particular effective rape-prevention strategies. Most rapists choose a victim they know, and get them alone in private before they attack—even a pathway fully lined with call boxes won’t prevent much rape, because most of them happen in rooms. And I’m not sure what vomit is supposed to accomplish; rape isn’t inspired by sexual desire, so attempting to douse it is a misdirected strategy. Rapists choose targets they think seem vulnerable, not hot. 

But there’s a bigger problem with Repubicans’ newfound passion for rape prevention. Their antidote to callboxes and puke is guns guns guns. And that’s even worse. The reality is that individual safety strategies do nothing to reduce the public-health crisis that is sexual violence on U.S. college campuses. If the GOP genuinely cared about preventing rape, they’d be taking the lead on expanding the Violence Against Women Act, not spending nearly two years trying to gut and block it. They’d be publicizing the Center for Public Integrity’s report on rape on campus, and calling for improved judicial processes, and an end to impunity for rapists. They’d be studying the success Vancouver has had recently with a campaign that puts the onus on men not to rape, and working to replicate it here in the states. And they certainly wouldn’t be mocking liberal women as not “hot” enough to be raped, because they’d understand the basics of how rapists operate. 

I appreciate the GOP's purported practical concern here. While we're working (often against them) to undo the systems that encourage gender-based violence, individual women face actual rapists every day. Should we just tell women to be patiently helpless while we work on the big picture? Of course not.

But guns don’t make women any safer from rape than peeing does. In fact, guns put all of us at greater risk when they’re introduced into any kind of conflict. A gun isn’t a talisman that will ward off rapists by simply existing. Anyone who respects guns knows that using one effectively in a moment of maximum adrenaline requires quite a lot of skill and training. You have to know not just how to aim and fire, but also, critically, how to keep possession of your weapon. And you have to be able to do it while your heart is pounding in your ears, while someone you probably know and may well love is trying to hurt you. It’s no wonder that for every woman who kills someone with a gun in self-defense, 101 women are murdered with guns. (That’s 1998 research, but there’s no reason to believe that things have improved.) That number only drops to 1:83 if we’re talking about people who know each other. The National Rifle Association has been marketing guns to women as self-defense for decades. If guns were going to make women safer, it would have happened by now. 

We know that most rapists choose a victim they know, so what the GOP is telling you is that your best option to prevent rape is to pull a gun on someone you're familiar with and likely care about. Guns don't come with a lot of options. You shoot, or you don't shoot. Yes, theoretically, you can aim for more or less lethal parts of the body, but that brings us back to expertise—even with constant training, police officers in New York City only hit their target 43 percent of the time when the target is between zero and 6 feet away. (Ironically, it can be harder to aim accurately when someone is at very close range, because there may be wrestling or grappling for the gun.) It's doubtful that most women who consider carrying for self-defense want to put in as much time and energy into the gun range as cops do, so our accuracy rate is going to be significantly more dismal. Add to that the fact that most rapists use alcohol or drugs to facilitate the assault, and you can do the math yourself. 

Women are perfectly capable of using our own bodies to defend ourselves when the chips are down. Talking about self-defense is delicate business—rape and abuse is never a victim's fault, whether or not he or she fights back. But we should all have access to more tools for defending ourselves if we're in danger, not fewer. And it's a lot easier to think about hitting or kicking someone you love who's hurting you than it is shooting them. It’s also a lot harder to hurt me with my own body than it is to turn a gun against me. If Republicans want to focus on individual defense solutions, why not fund effective, feminist self-defense classes for everyone who wants them? Holistic self-defense instruction not only teaches practical fighting skills , but also increases women’s ability to set boundaries and act with confidence in all areas of our lives. And even the DOJ has found that fighting back increases women’s odds of escaping a rapist. 

Every time politicians invoke the specter of rape to advance their agenda, it’s personal to me. I’m the most standard of statistics: I was sexually assaulted in college by a guy I knew. There were no bushes or call boxes, and I can tell you first-hand that there’s no way I would have pulled a gun on him even if I had one, though I sure wish I’d known then what I know now about how to throw him off me. Even more than that, I wish the GOP would stop selling their fear and danger agenda in my name. 

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