Saturday, February 21, 2015

Guns and the Campus Rape Problem: A Political Hijacking

This past week two topics I have blogged a lot about came together: the use of guns as self defense and higher education. With all of the attention being paid to issues of rape and sexual assault on college campuses, it was perhaps inevitable that somebody would try to hijack that conversation to advance their own ideas. For at least one Nevada legislator, this seems to be exactly what is happening: using the crisis over campus sexual assault to push for students to be allowed to carry guns.

To get a peek inside this interesting political maneuver, I commend to the reader this interview of Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore published by the Chronicle. The thrust of Fiore's argument is clear: if women are allowed to concealed-carry guns, there will be fewer campus rapes in part because women will be able to repel their attackers and in part because men considering attacking women will be deterred by the possibility of being shot.

There are a host of problems here, of course, many of which the Chronicle interviewer tries to engage Assemblywoman Fiore on. It is well established that most (not all, but the large majority) of campus sexual assaults are committed by friends or acquaintances in trusted circumstances (i.e. bedrooms), not by strangers lurking in parking garages or dark alleys. Fiore is using one particular case of a woman who was attacked in a parking garage by a stranger to try to generalize across the problem - a clear mischaracterization. Still, I'm willing to grant the point that even if aggressive stranger rape is only a small subset of all cases, it's a subset worth addressing.

Reading through the interview in its entirety also reveals a politician in full Duck-and-Weave mode. Comparing her answers to the questions asked, she fails to answer pretty much every single one of them, instead inserting the talking points she wants to make rather than engaging in an actual dialogue. If gun rights advocates want to have a real conversation with people who are not already convinced by their point of view, this is a classic case of how not to do that. Indeed, it may well be that Fiore is incapable of talking to anybody who doesn't already agree with her. But that's not unusual for politicians either.

What really strikes me about the interview is the fantasy world that Fiore is living in with regard to the actual, practical problem: how can a woman prevent a rape attempt by a stranger? For this purpose, concealed-carry guns are an absolutely terrible choice that will almost certainly make women less, not more, safe.

Why do I say this? For two reasons - one tactical, the other psychological. Tactically, a gun in a concealed-carry holster is not a good way to defend yourself against a sudden attack at close range. In order to properly bring a gun to bear (let's assume the potential victim is fully aware and well-trained not only in firing but in drawing and wielding the weapon), the attacker must reveal himself as a threat at a fairly substantial range - most experts would suggest 15 feet or more. For a rapist lurking in a parking garage, this is not going to happen - attackers like parking garages precisely because, in addition to often being isolated from crowds, they offer plenty of concealment from which to attack a victim at extremely close range. The woman being held up as the poster child by Fiore was, by her own testimony, grabbed from behind. She never saw her attacker coming.

In such a tactical situation - in which, it should be pointed out in this particular case, the attacker already had a gun out and in his hand - having a gun in a concealed holster would not help much. It is possible, if not likely, that the attacker would have discovered it during the process of the rape itself, at which point he would have taken it from her. Assuming he did not discover it, how likely is it that she could draw a weapon from a place of concealment and fire a disabling shot while being raped and while the attacker held a pistol to her head? It seems likelier that, had she made the attempt, she would have been shot herself as soon as the attacker recognized a threat to his own life.

I certainly feel for this woman - nobody deserves to go through what she went through, and we should work as hard as possible to prevent such attacks. But even though she testified that having a weapon on her person would have helped, it is almost impossible to imagine how. The particular (and thankfully rare) circumstances she found herself in are nearly impossible to defend against unless she had seen her attacker coming from a much greater range - in which case, she still had plenty of other options, almost all of them better than getting into a gun battle.

The second reason why CCW possession may make things worse rather than better has to do with psychology. Every self-defense book and instructor starts with the same point: the number one weapon is awareness. If someone carrying a gun is convinced that doing so provides protection, that awareness is almost certainly going to be taken down a notch. Women who think, "I'm packing heat - I can take care of myself", are almost certainly going to be more vulnerable. Gavin de Becker has pointed out that fear is a gift that helps protect us. False confidence makes us demonstrably less safe.

So why is Assemblywoman Fiore pushing the guns-as-rape-defense line? The interview in the Chronicle is actually very instructive to this point. Consider the following exchanges (emphasis added):
Q. What kind of weapon do you normally carry? Just curious.   A. I have several.
Q. How about today?   A. Today I just have my Kahr [9-millimeter pistol]. It’s a cute, skinny … it’s a hot little gun.
Q. That’s a good way to put it.   A. It’s a hot, sleek, sexy 9-millimeter gun. Actually, what’s great is it fits between your thighs in a thigh holster.
Q. Enlighten me because my mind keeps coming back to this situation where there’s an assault playing out, and a man who’s preying on a woman might simply overpower her, even if the woman had a gun. Is it more of a mental thing, like the idea that he might be harmed?   A. No. I can tell just by talking to you that you are totally not a gun guy.
Q. Well, I’m trying to understand.   A. Well, the only way you’re going to understand is to fly yourself down here to Nevada, I’ll take you to a gun range for two days and get you trained, and you’ll have a whole different view on guns.
This appears to be the argument in a nutshell. Guns are "sexy" and "hot" and the only way to really understand is to have the experience of firing one on a firing range. Now, while I am willing to accept that having that experience almost certainly gives you a feeling of power, because guns are powerful things. firing a gun at a stationary target is about as useful for understanding self defense as a martial artist spending all of his time doing nothing but striking a makiwara board. Yes, you can hit hard, but how do you receive/block/counter/evade/adapt to your attacker? What about everything that leads up to the punch/shot?

The entire interview with Assemblywoman Fiore reinforces a point I've made before: this is not an argument based on reason, it's based on emotion. It's the feeling that "gun guys" (to borrow Fiore's phrase - woman are obviously included here as well) have that possessing a gun is a talisman that grants power to ward off evil. It's a "gut" thing.

And this is precisely why gun advocacy faces such political hurdles. It's very difficult to expand beyond your own tribe if you can't seriously engage with points of view outside your own, or with facts and realities that run counter to your preferred solutions. Telling one gripping but problematic story isn't going to convince anybody who isn't already convinced. And people who are most interested in the realities of self-defense will continue to dismiss emotional gun fetishes as what they are - dangerous ideas that will make people less safe.

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