Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Grim Arithmetic

Imagine that you're walking alone, at night, through a college campus.  Maybe you're tipsy, tired, or stressed out about exams or maybe you're fully alert and just making your way back from a late class.  You notice a figure behind you and then, several turns later, notice that he's still there.  You walk faster.  He walks faster.  You look around but there's no one else there.  The windows of academic buildings look down on you, dark and deserted this time of night and you hear his footsteps getting closer.  

And so you pull a gun from your purse, turn, and level it at him.

Here's where the hypotheticals of the concealed carry debate meet the realities.  This person you're looking at over the sites of a snub-nosed .38, is he a rapist?  A sexual assailant?  Maybe just another student on his way home from a class?  Does he want to hurt you or just return the student ID you dropped while you were getting coffee at the library?

When Colorado lawmaker Joe Salazar raised a similar scenario during debate on a state gun control measure he said the following:

It’s why we have call boxes, it’s why we have safe zones, it’s why we have [rape] whistles. Because you just don’t know who you’re gonna be shooting at. And you don’t know, if you feel like you’re gonna be raped, or if you feel like someone’s been following you around, or if you feel like you’re in trouble when you may actually not be, that you pop out that gun and you pop … pop around at somebody
Once you pull the trigger you can't take the shot back and once you pull the gun out you can't take that back either.  Now, to hear the right talk about Salazar's comments you'd think he had just suggested that a woman walking around campus after dark deserved to be raped.  

Red State headlined the story as "Colorado Democrat: Women Don't Need Guns If They 'Feel Like They're Going To Be Raped,'" which is clearly not at all what Salazar said and the right wing echo chamber has largely picked up that refrain.  
Hot Air: "Even if you feel like you might get raped, you may not, so no guns for you."
Michelle Malkin: "Colorado morons want to leave women defenseless: 'vomiting or urinating' better than carrying a gun"
Donald Sensing: "University of Colorado to women: 'Lie back and think of Colorado'"
But Fox Nation has the most absurd of all of these headlines, "Democrats have a full-blown Akin on their hands."  Really?  "A full blown Akin?"

Last year Todd Akin, arguing that abortion should be outlawed even in cases of rape said the following:
If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down. But let's assume that maybe that didn't work or something. I think there should be some punishment, but the punishment ought to be on the rapist and not attacking the child.
That's a fairly loaded statement so let's break it down.  Akin first contends that there are two kinds of rape, "legitimate rape" and (presumably) "illegitimate rape."  What Akin is suggesting is that if a guy holds a knife to a woman's throat and says "scream and I'll kill you" that her body has some kind of biological reaction that prevents pregnancy.  

Now any gynocologist will tell you that Akin is completely off his nut when it comes to the body's response to violent sexual assault.  The threat or relization of physical violence has absolutely no short term consequences for a woman's fertility but that's not why Akin's comments were so poorly received.   The flip side of Akin's argument is that if instead of a knife an assailant uses alcohol or drugs or other means of coercion to render his victim unable to resist that the violation is not "legitimate rape" but instead "illegitimate" in some sense -- that she was asking for it.

There is just no possible way to read Salazar's comments in even close to the same light.  Salazar rightly points out that not every case or even most cases of "creepy guy behind me at night" leads to rape.  Rape and sexual violence on college campuses is a real problem but not one that concealed handguns are likely to do much to address.  More than 80% of college rape victims report knowing their assailants and a huge number of campus rapes involve either alcohol or non-violent coercion and while that is not to say that the remaining 20% do not matter, it seems worth pointing out that at least 4 in 5 campus rapes would likely not be stopped with a firearm.

The remainder represent a far more difficult problem but one that Salazar's comments rightly address.  There is a temptation to think of firearms in a very personal sense but policy makers must address these issues impersonally.  While carrying a firearm might make a given woman feel safer and even prevent a rape if, God forbid, she were attacked in the dark of night, the presence of firearms on a college campus has certain inevitable statistical consequences.  There will be accidents.  There will be mistaken shootings.  There will be arguments that escalate to the point of violence.

Policy makers must weigh those statistical realities against the possibility that allowing concealed carry on campus would prevent some number of rapes.  Based upon this grim arithmetic they must make a choice either allowing or disallowing concealed carry.  Joe Salazar highlighted one side of this decision making process and for that he has been reviled and condemned by right-wing media; in reality, he did or said nothing wrong.  Rape is a tragedy, but so is being shot by someone who mistook a benign pedestrian for a rapist; we need to talk about both in order to have a reasonable conversation about concealed carry.

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