The issue of sexual assault on our nation’s campuses has been much in the news, especially since President Obama’s creation of a Task Force in early 2014 to address this serious issue. Lawmakers at the state and federal level, as well as law-enforcement officials have been deeply engaged with college and university leaders in attempting to develop effective prevention strategies as well as ways our institutions of higher education should deal with instances of alleged sexual assault on their campuses.
In some states, like Virginia and Rhode Island, lawmakers are considering bills which would require that law-enforcement officials be notified within 24 hours if a faculty member, administrator or staff member “obtains information alleging that a criminal sexual assault has occurred.” (quoted in The Chronicle of Higher Education, State Lawmakers ask Colleges to Report Rapes More Swiftly, February 13, 2015). Such mandatory- reporting requirements, while supported by many, also are being challenged as intrusions on the rights of rape victims, some of whom might not come forward if it means that they would have to be part of a legal proceeding they might not want. While strategies like mandatory reporting may have drawbacks, I applaud the efforts of college leaders, legislators and law-enforcement officials to ask hard questions and examine different approaches to both the prevention and handling of sexual assault on our campuses.
However, there is an approach to rape prevention recently being discussed which I, frankly, find deplorable. In what I feel is a calculated and opportunistic linking of two issues – legalization of firearms on college campuses and rape prevention – an argument is actually being made that allowing guns on campus can help decrease the incidence of sexual assault. As stated by Alan Schwarz in a recent article in The New York Times (2/18/2015), “…lawmakers in 10 states who are pushing bills that would permit the carrying of firearms on campus are hoping that the national spotlight on sexual assault will help them win passage of their measures.” In an interview with Mr. Schwarz, Assemblywoman Michelle Fiore, the sponsor of such a bill in Nevada, said the following – and, shocking and offensive as her words are, I will quote her directly – “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them.” Equally offensive, she goes on to say, “The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.” End quote. As Mr. Schwarz points out, and I quote, “advocates of the campus-carry laws … are merely exploiting a hot button issue”, that is, sexual assault on our campuses.
I find this approach both uninformed as to the circumstances of most instances of sexual assault on our campuses, as well as extremely irresponsible. While concealed carry of handguns on college campuses is now banned in 41 states by law or university policy, in some 10 states, lawmakers are continuing to push legislation related to concealed carry on college campuses by tying it to the potential prevention of sexual assault (The New York Times Editorial, 2/21/15). Such a forced nexus of these issues flies in the face of the fact that some 80 to 90% of sexual assaults on campuses occur between acquaintances, most usually when alcohol is a factor. Indeed, in a study carried out by the insurance and risk- management firm, United Educators, “…90% of victims knew the perpetrator … 78% of the assaults involved alcohol, and one in three victims were drunk, passed out, or asleep.” Certainly, the use of a weapon on an acquaintance or, indeed, a friend, would be highly unlikely.
A college student, quoted by Mr. Schwarz in his article in The New York Times, has this to say about allowing concealed carry of weapons on campus: “I think it’s a terrible idea.” She goes on to say, “From what I’ve seen … sexual assault is often linked to situations where people are drinking, so it’s not a good idea to have concealed weapons around that.” End quote. In this same vein, a Letter to the Editor in The New York Times (2/20/15) by another college student, Isabelle Leipziger, is especially compelling: “The unfortunate prevalence of campus rape is no secret … But there is no way that the solution to a violent problem lies in the arming of female students. The deterrent for rape should not be the threat of getting shot, but rather the inherent moral recognition that rape is wrong.” She goes on to say that, “Most college parties involve the consumption of alcohol, and I do not believe that giving people guns in environments where alcohol is likely to be present is a good idea. If carrying a dangerous weapon to feel safe becomes the norm on college campuses, rape will most likely not be the only issue of violence you will be writing about.” End quote. How very true.
I feel strongly that succumbing to the self-serving rhetoric of many in the gun lobby regarding the need for concealed carry of handguns on our nation’s campuses, ostensibly to prevent sexual assault, would be a tragedy waiting to happen. The thought of purposely mixing guns, alcohol and young students is, to many, appalling; and, yet, three states – Colorado, Idaho and Utah – allow concealed handguns on public college campuses, and five others – Arkansas, Kansas, Wisconsin, Mississippi, and Oregon – allow concealed carry on campus but let colleges determine where hand guns may be carried (The Chronicle of Higher Education, February 20, 2015, Concealed Weapons Mainly Miss the Mark as an Answer to Campus Rape).
Proponents of allowing concealed weapons on our nation’s campuses are clearly exploiting the very real and very serious issue of high rates of sexual assault at our colleges and universities; however, in so doing, they are adding a degree of risk which, in my opinion, is totally unacceptable. All of us in higher education need to speak out in the strongest possible terms against this ill-conceived and dangerous policy. With no hyperbole intended, the lives of our nation’s college students may depend on it.
Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.
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