In the latest misguided attempt to grapple with the campus sexual assault crisis, lawmakers are pushing to arm women on college campuses. State Del. Nicholas Freitas (R-Culpeper) recently sponsored House Bill 761, a piece of legislation which “prohibits public institutions of higher education from adopting or enforcing any rules prohibiting a female who possess [sic] a valid Virginia concealed handgun permit from carrying a concealed handgun on campus.” The bill comes amid several other Republican proposals to support gun ownership in Virginia, including a bill which would allow faculty members to carry guns on college campuses with a concealed weapons permit.
The most obvious issue with Freitas’ proposal is that it contradicts Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education. The bill is unconstitutional unless the state can articulate an “exceedingly persuasive justification” for sex discrimination, per Law Prof. Anne Coughlin, who does not view such a justification to be possible. HB 761’s violation of federal law is enough to make it bad legislation — even if it were to be passed, it would surely be nullified in a court of law.
What’s more concerning about the proposal is the nefarious implication that it would prevent rape on campus. Freitas told The Cavalier Daily in a recent interview that “the whole role of the bill, we felt, was to empower women,” going on to say the bill could deter future violence against women. This demonstrates a weak understanding of the nature of gender-based violence on campus. Anti-rape activist and National President of One in Four John D. Foubert told Slate, “If you have a rape situation, usually it starts with some sort of consensual behavior, and by the time it switches to non-consensual, it would be nearly impossible to run for a gun.” According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, the vast majority of sexual assault incidents are ones in which the attacker is known to the victim, which would make a victim hesitant to shoot. The nature of these incidents also undermines the possibility of deterring perpetrators, who would expect a familiar victim to be reluctant to shoot.
High-risk environments such as college parties are also not likely to be places where women would carry guns — nor should they be. Surely we can ensure the safety of our students without necessitating that they arm themselves. Rather than pursue legislation that promotes more violence, lawmakers should seek to address the root of the problem — more often than not, lack of communication between sexual partners — much as University organizations currently do.
Not only is the efficacy of such a policy a problem, but so is the proposal’s potential to exacerbate sexual assault situations on college campuses. Given that campus sexual assaults can involve alcohol within environments such as college parties, allowing guns on campuses presents a higher risk for gun accidents. Firearm safety training does not justify gun use in these common situations — guns and alcohol do not mix.
Nor do guns and public spaces, for that matter. University Grounds, visited by students and non-students alike, should be as free as possible from the risk of gun-related accidents. Imagine a scenario in which a student leaves her firearm, much like her backpack, in a library or on the steps of Old Cabell Hall, susceptible to unintended users. The danger of this alone would outweigh the supposed benefits of this bill.
Thankfully, the General Assembly will not consider this bill until next session. But the same objections we raise today will stand a year from now. Sexual assault is an issue that demands more serious analysis than our lawmakers are giving it. Guns won’t solve the sexual assault epidemic — the sooner our legislators realize this, the better.