As gun rights advocates push to legalize firearms on college campuses, an argument is taking shape: Arming female students will help reduce sexual assaults.
Support for so-called campus-carry laws had been hard to muster despite efforts by proponents to argue that armed students and faculty members could prevent mass shootings like the one at Virginia Tech in 2007. The carrying of concealed firearms on college campuses is banned in 41 states by law or by university policy. Carrying guns openly is generally not permitted.
But this year, lawmakers in 10 states who are pushing bills that would permit the carrying of firearms on campus are hoping the national spotlight on sexual assault will help them win passage of their measures.
“If you’ve got a person that’s raped because you wouldn’t let them carry a firearm to defend themselves, I think you’re responsible,” state Rep. Dennis K. Baxley, a Florida Republican, said during debate in a House subcommittee last month. The bill passed.
The sponsor of a bill in Nevada, Assemblywoman Michele Fiore, said in a telephone interview, “If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them. The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head.”
In addition to those in Florida and Nevada, bills that would allow guns on campus have been introduced in Indiana, Montana, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas and Wyoming.
Opponents contend that university campuses should remain havens from the gun-related risks that exist elsewhere, and that college students, with high rates of binge drinking and other recklessness, would be particularly prone to gun accidents.
Some experts in sexual assault said that college women were typically assaulted by someone they knew, sometimes a friend, so even if they had access to their gun, they would rarely be tempted to use it.
“It reflects a misunderstanding of sexual assaults in general,” said John D. Foubert, an Oklahoma State University professor and national president of One in Four, which provides educational programs on sexual assault to college campuses. “If you have a rape situation, usually it starts with some sort of consensual behavior, and by the time it switches to nonconsensual, it would be nearly impossible to run for a gun. Maybe if it’s someone who raped you before and is coming back, it theoretically could help them feel more secure.”
Other objectors to the bills say that advocates of the campus-carry laws, predominantly Republicans with well-established pro-gun stances, are merely exploiting a hot-button issue.
“The gun lobby has seized on this tactic, this subject of sexual assault,” said Andy Pelosi, the executive director of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. “It resonates with lawmakers.”
Colorado, Wisconsin and seven other states allow people with legal carry permits to take concealed firearms to campus, some with restrictions. (For example, Michigan does not allow guns in dormitories or classrooms.) Many of those states once had bans but lifted them in recent legislative cycles, suggesting some momentum for efforts in 2015.
In accordance with longstanding Kansas Board of Regents policy, it is prohibited for anyone to possess, carry or use weapons of any type on university property. This applies also to those licensed for concealed carry of handguns.
Guns are prohibited on Missouri college and university campuses except in regularly approved programs or by public safety agents in the line of duty.
Past debates in Colorado, Michigan and Nevada have included testimony in support of campus-carry laws from Amanda Collins, who in 2007 was raped on the campus of the University of Nevada in Reno; Collins has said that had she been carrying her licensed gun, she would have averted the attack. It is unclear whether Collins will testify anywhere this year.
Some surveys have estimated that a vast majority of college presidents and faculty members oppose allowing firearms on campus. Support was somewhat higher among students, but 67 percent of men and 86 percent of women still disliked the concept.
Many students who support current legislation have joined the lobbying group Students for Concealed Carry. Crayle Vanest, an Indiana University senior who recently became the first woman on the group’s national board, said, she should be able to carry her licensed .38-caliber Bersa Thunder pistol on campus, where she said she had walked unarmed after her late-night shifts at a library food court. “Universities are under a ton of investigation for how they handle sexual assaults — that shows how safe campus maybe isn’t. Our female membership has increased massively. People who weren’t listening before are listening now.”
Some lawmakers said they expected that votes on the bills would largely be along party lines.
Fiore of Nevada, for example, predicted the Republican-controlled Legislature and Republican governor would enact her bill. She added that people who understood the extent of sexual assaults on college campuses, perhaps female Democrats who had been sexually assaulted themselves, “need to call their legislators and say, ‘Represent us today or lose your election tomorrow.’”
A South Carolina state senator, Brad Hutto, a Democrat who will oppose a campus-carry bill when it is considered by the judiciary committee, said he doubted that sexual assault would swing his state’s debate but, “I know that that’s a card that’s going to be used.”
The most interesting debate could occur in Florida, where several story lines intersect. Florida State University has had high-profile episodes involving sexual assault — the star football player Jameis Winston was accused of raping a fellow student in 2012 but did not face criminal charges — as well as a campus shooting in November in which a 31-year-old gunman opened fire at a school library, wounding two students and an employee before being fatally shot by the police.
The university’s president, John Thrasher, is a former state senator, former chairman of the state’s Republican Party and a vocal gun rights supporter. But he opposes guns on university grounds, in part because of a 2011 death: Ashley Cowie, a sophomore and the daughter of one of Thrasher’s close friends, was shot and killed when another student, showing off his rifle in a fraternity house, did not realize the gun was loaded.
“A college campus is not a place to be carrying guns around; our campus police agree with that, and so does law enforcement,” Thrasher said. “If I had my druthers in this situation, I would ask the Legislature, maybe the universities know the issue better than they do. Don’t impose something on us.”
Mariana Prado, a sophomore at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, said, “I think it’s a terrible idea. 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.”
The next stop for the Florida bill will be a committee hearing in March. Greg Steube, the original sponsor of the bill, said he hoped that inviting Collins, the former Nevada student who was raped in 2007, to testify would help it reach the desk of Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, and become law.
“It’s moving to hear from a young woman that had a concealed carry and but for a university policy, she was raped,” Steube said. “I don’t know if it can get any more compelling than that.”