Guns don't deter sexual assaults

James Alan Fox

February 24, 2015

AThe question of whether licensed gun owners should be allowed to keep and carry firearms on campus has actually been debated for many years. Of course, the sense of urgency intensified after the 2007 massacre of 32 victims at Virginia Tech, from which grew the grass-roots network Students for Concealed Carry.

The rare episode of campus mass murder has failed to turn the tide in most places. Currently, nearly half the states strictly prohibit guns on college grounds with the obvious exception of sworn campus security. Just as many states leave the decision to individual schools, while only seven states expressly permit licensed gun owners — be they faculty or students — to possess and in some instances to bring a loaded firearm to class.

The reportedly high rate of sexual assault, however, might succeed in changing some minds. Even though the vast majority of cases reflected in the scary statistics on campus sexual assaults involve unwanted touching/kissing or alcohol-impairment, and not forcible rape, the pro-gun agenda need not deal with those details.

In fact, recent legislation in Florida to eliminate the ban against guns on state college campuses was specifically predicated on the prospect of deterring sexual assault by arming would-be victims. For much the same reason, several other states are considering similar legislation.

However compelling the deterrence argument, the evidence suggests otherwise. According to victimization figures routinely collected by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the sexual assault victimization rate for college women is considerably lower (by more than one-third) than that among their non-college counterparts of the same age range. Thus, prohibiting college women from carrying guns on campus does not put them at greater risk.

The downsides of campus carry must also be considered. If we allow college women to pack heat in their purses, then we also give the green light to arming college men. Would an aroused and inebriated brute then use his "just in case of emergency" gun to intimidate some non-consenting woman into bed? Submit or you're dead?

Aside from the issue of deterrence vs. facilitation is the more practical matter of accessibility. Many, if not most, sexual assaults on campus involve a victim who is incapacitated either by physical restraint or by virtue of voluntary or involuntary intoxication from alcohol or drugs. Even if she carried a concealed weapon for self-defense purposes, it would not likely be close at hand for her to use during a sexual assault.

Gun groups constantly fret about the slippery slope of Second Amendment exceptions, refusing to concede even modest controls for fear of losing their rights altogether. But that mountain has another side whose slope is just as slippery: concealed carry in restaurants, bars, schools and workplaces. Where does it stop?

Combating campus sexual assault is clearly an important goal for college administrations, and there are some reasonable steps to take, including better control of alcohol consumption. But allowing guns on campus will only create more problems.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY's Board of Contributors