The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 8, 2015

Arming rape victims? Show us the evidence

Just over a month ago, we wrote about a firearms policy being proposed in several states that had a new twist to its justification—to allow the carrying of guns on college campuses as a means to prevent sexual assault. We summarized why everything we know about sexual assault suggests that this won’t work— that when it comes to intimate partner violence, guns are a risk, not an asset. We felt the evidence we brought to bear showed just how misguided this policy is.

But the controversy continues, and advocates for this policy are blatantly saying the onus is on the victim to stop a sexual assault.

In a segment on an NRA News program, host Cam Edwards suggested that carrying firearms is the best strategy for sexual assault prevention because “the burden of stopping that assault is not going to be on the person committing that assault, not at that moment in time, the burden of stopping that assault is on the victim.”

Even if you set aside the ethical and moral considerations (and there are many) of placing the burden of sexual assault prevention on victims, the evidence tells us this is a bad idea. We don’t know nearly as much as we should about how to prevent sexual assault, but we do know about some effective practices. These focus on stopping perpetrators by changing social norms and mobilizing bystanders, rather than on making victims accountable for their own misfortune.

Specifically, education and skills-based programming matters. It can change what people believe about sexual assault and how they act.

For instance, some would-be perpetrators have been thwarted through a middle- and high-school based program called Safe Dates. It addresses changing norms by changing knowledge and attitudes. Teens who participated in Safe Dates reported perpetrating less sexual violence compared with teens who did not participate in it.

The field has also shown that changes in attitudes and norms about rape also make bystanders more likely to act. College-age youth who participated in a program that provided accurate information about sexual assault and role-played how to intervene if they noticed someone in trouble were more likely to help someone who seemed vulnerable to sexual assault than people who did not participate in the program.

The evidence against guns on campus to prevent sexual assault is stacking up. No evidence has been presented on the other side of this policy debate beyond rhetoric. As a society, we should expect more from our response to sexual assault than hoping, against all evidence, that this time firearms will be an effective public safety strategy.

A compassionate, effective response to sexual assault will focus on putting evidence-based programs into play and learning about how to discourage and prevent sexual assault long before a victim is ever placed in the position of having to decide whether to open fire.

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As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.