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Current Gun Laws Restrict Women's Defense

This is the second in a two-part series detailing how women can use guns to defend themselves against rapists.
Go to part 1

Yesterday I described the nature of campus rape as found in a recent Justice Department study and reviewed the research indicating that resistance with a firearm is a woman's best chance of escaping an attempted rape.

This raises some obvious pragmatic problems, however. First is the matter of training. The gun by itself is useless; to be effective, it must be wielded by one who knows well how to operate it. Training is essential, as is frequent practice at the range.

More importantly, she must have made, long in advance, a deliberate decision that if it ever becomes necessary to protect herself against a rape or other violent assault, she will brandish and, if warranted, fire it. Fortunately, research shows that only about 2 percent of defensive gun uses end with the user needing to pull the trigger; the overwhelming majority require only the credible threat of a gun to terminate the attack.

Most crime perpetrators can easily distinguish between a bluff and a serious threat. One might attempt to use a toy or an unloaded gun or brandish a real gun without having formed the intent to discharge it if needed. Although these stratagems might work occasionally, they cannot be relied on.

It is a common truism among firearms instructors that the assailant does not fear the gun so much as the obvious, determined willingness of its owner to use it if need be. To put it bluntly, if a woman is not more determined to escape rape than the perpetrator is to inflict it, she will fail.

Her training must include serious discussions of the mindset that needs to accompany the decision to own a self-defense firearm as well as the laws that govern its legal use. This requires a substantial investment of both time and money. The use of lethal force, even in the most perfectly justifiable situations, is a heavy moral and legal responsibility. The decision cannot be made lightly or half-heartedly.

The choice to be armed also functionally precludes getting drunk since trying to decide whether a given situation allows and requires resort to deadly force is a dicey affair when one's judgment is clouded. But as noted above, a woman who is serious about rape prevention will not get drunk except in the safest circumstances anyway, so this reality does not bring significant further restrictions on one's activities.

Next are the logistical problems of having immediate access to a firearm anytime one needs it. There are many possible solutions to this difficulty, but a woman's options for her unique situation are better discussed with a personal firearms instructor than laid out here.

Finally, we have legal and policy obstacles. Minnesota is one of only 18 states that still do not allow a law-abiding citizen to automatically obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. Instead, we must submit to the arbitrary decisions of law enforcement officials as to whether they think our need is sufficiently great.

In other words, whether you think that you need a pistol to protect you is irrelevant; you can be overruled by a police department bureaucrat who doesn't want citizens being responsible for their own safety. In the Twin Cities, permits are generally difficult to obtain, absent a physical disability. Students from other parts of the state might do better applying in their home counties where permits are generally given more liberally. Once issued, permits are valid throughout the state.

If a woman wishes to obtain a carry permit but is denied, she has three choices. First is to appeal the denial to a judge, who can overrule the constabulary. Second is to keep the gun at home and relinquish her protection while away.

Her third option is to ignore the law, placing a priority on safety over submission to a law that denies the inherent human right to self-preservation. Is protection against rape, robbery, kidnapping, serious assault and murder worth the small chance of a misdemeanor conviction for unlawfully carrying one's handgun? Each woman will have to answer that for herself.

The next obstacle is the University's own policy. The "student conduct" policy claims to be established, in part, for the "safety of members of the University community." But ironically — and perversely — one of its sections disallows women from even possessing, let alone using, the most powerful rape-prevention tool. It is self-evident that the University is not providing a rape-free environment, yet it prohibits a female student from defending herself in the most effective way.

This patronizing, patriarchal policy declares, by implication, that female students are not competent to own and operate a self-defense weapon. You cannot be trusted with the power of a knife or firearm, your University is telling you. You aren't sufficiently wise to take responsibility for your own protection.

I think women should be outraged at this insulting, condescending arrogance. The University routinely portrays itself as empowering women. In reality, it denies them what is arguably the most important power — that of effective self-defense against predators.

Imagine the outrage if the University established a policy stating that a female student might not have an abortion while attending school here, at the risk of expulsion. But such a policy would be a small infringement on rights, and affect only a small percentage of women, compared to its current denial of every female student the right to employ the best deterrent to violent assault.

So again, a woman must choose: deny herself the most potent protection against rape or risk expulsion from the school.

It is worth noting that "fighting" is also on the list of prohibited student conduct. This clearly means that a woman is not even permitted to strike or kick a man attempting to rape her, lest she be brought up on disciplinary charges. Surely the University's attorneys are clever enough to have inserted a self-defense exception to the fighting and firearms policies had they wanted to recognize this right. Its absence is therefore telling.

To make matters worse, the University appears to go to some length to make sure that female students are not informed that a firearm affords them their greatest protection against rape. I looked through the informational brochures published and distributed by the University's Program Against Sexual Violence, and there was no mention of the option of protecting oneself with a weapon. Even the handout on self-defense classes listed only facilities teaching hand-to-hand fighting skills — no firearms instructors.

Why would the University unit charged with educating students on rape prevention withhold information on the most effective tool a woman could choose? We can assume that the PASV staff are intelligent, competent professionals who keep up on the scientific literature in their field. It is therefore unlikely that they do not know of the relevant research.

Could they know of the modern conclusion that a gun gives women a tremendous advantage in rape prevention but not believe it? I suppose so, but in the absence of any contradictory research, I would have to wonder about their grounds for such disbelief. And even if there is controversy over the adequacy of the research, surely women still have a right to be informed of it, rather than have it censored.

The last possibility is that PASV is deliberately withholding the information, even though they believe it is likely correct. Why? Here I can only speculate. Sadly, it is not unthinkable that they, like the University at large, view young women as incapable of effectively and properly wielding the power of a gun in their own defense. Another possibility is that they actually value the safety and life of the assailant over that of the victim. (Anti-gun activists who advocate no civilian ownership of handguns are actually taking this position, though they deny it.)

I posed this question to one of PASV's staff. She confirmed that the firearms option is not presented in the PASV's educational materials and seminars. She had not considered the matter before but speculated that the lack of information on the gun option was omitted because it might not be a practical one for University women for several reasons.

First, there is fear that the gun could be turned against its user. (Studies on violent assaults show that this is actually a very rare outcome.) Second, since most campus rapes are by an acquaintance, women may be less willing to inflict injury — even in self-defense — than when attacked by a stranger. Third, having a gun in the settings that most commonly result in a campus rape poses the kind of pragmatic difficulties mentioned above. Fourth, use of a gun can complicate an attempted-rape victim's legal situation. This is certainly true, but would, I think, generally be preferable to being raped.

Despite such potential problems, it seems obvious to me that withholding discussion of this rape-prevention tool does the University's women a serious disservice.

Teaching safe use of firearms would actually fit nicely with PASV's mission statement: "The University of Minnesota Program Against Sexual Violence is committed to the belief that all people have the right to live free of violence and the fear of violence." (I hope that this is not meant to convey that criminals have a "right" to be free of fear of violence when they are inflicting violence on the innocent.)

Research shows clearly that violent crime rates, including rape, are reduced when more law-abiding citizens carry concealed handguns. And there is no woman less in fear of being raped than one who is skilled in the use of the handgun concealed in her hip holster.

Being armed is obviously not for everyone. It will not prevent every rape even for a woman who is armed continuously. But it clearly results in a dramatic reduction in her risk. It is, therefore, an option that women should seriously consider.

I'll bet that the woman raped Oct. 3 wishes she had done so.

Robert J. Woolley is a staff physician at Boynton Health Service. He welcomes comments at wooll005@tc.umn.edu. Send letters to the editor to letters@daily.umn.edu
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24 feb 2001