The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 20, 2015

Guns on campus won't prevent sexual assault

February 20, 2015

This week, the New York Times reported that legislators in several states are pushing to expand concealed firearm carrying rights on college campuses.

Sexual assault prevention is a purported reason for the necessity of these laws. One Nevada assemblywoman told the Times that “if these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them.” This logic is an egregious misinterpretation of what we know about guns and sexual assault.

Few sexual assaults involve a stranger bursting from the bushes to assault a lone victim walking home. Instead, most victims of sexual assault—78 percent of student victims and 80 percent of nonstudent victims—are assaulted by someone they know.  For students, 24 percent of these assailants are intimate partners and 50 percent are well known to them or casual acquaintances.

Most of these sexual assaults do not involve physical violence, but alcohol or social pressure and verbal coercion. Even if a gun could fend off a physical attack, it’s meaningless when attackers’ weapons are familiarity and social pressure.

Not that guns will necessarily help stop a physical assault anyway. Firearms have consistently been found to make intimate partner violence worse, particularly for women. Women who purchase firearms have been found to be at higher risk for becoming homicide victims, and women living in houses with one or more guns were three times more likely to be killed in their homes.

Moreover, when guns are involved in intimate partner violence, it is much more likely that that violence will end in death. With this track record in the home, it’s hard to imagine why guns would be more effective on campus.

And even if a gun is used to prevent an assault, it could lead to even more hardship for the victim. It happened to Marissa Alexander when she fired a single warning shot to deter her estranged husband from attacking her. Despite being in a state with strong “stand your ground” laws, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

In this case, the criminal justice system could not disentangle the complexity of the intimate partner violence, and ultimately re-victimized the victim. Encouraging violence to prevent sexual assault could force even more victims to resolve these issues in a forum that may not have the capacity to handle them.

Finally, turning to firearms for defense unfairly puts the burden of preventing sexual assault squarely on the victims, male or female. As Marissa Alexander’s case shows, once violence and the criminal justice system enter the picture, the victim’s world can fall apart all too quickly. Our emphasis should be on developing programs and cultures that prevent sexual assault from ever occurring, not pushing victims toward a potential shootout and hoping everything works out in the end.

Evidence on what actually works in preventing sexual assault is limited, but by building and evaluating promising programs we can create prevention strategies that do not force victims to bear most of the burdens. Educating campus communities about healthy relationship dynamics and the responsibilities of both partners, encouraging bystanders to intervene in escalating incidents, and implementing swift and thorough investigative policies are all promising avenues that deserve more attention.

Urban research has also shown that there are too many barriers for victims seeking help. We need to make it a lot easier for victims to report assaults and access the services they deserve. We need to know more about how to prevent sexual assault, but from what we know already, adding guns to the mix won’t make anything better—and may make things a whole lot worse.

Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP

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