Guns Effective Defense Against Rape


Dr. Robert J. Woolley

On Oct. 3, 2000, a woman was raped near the East River Flats Park. The police report triggered headlines as well as consternation among many students and staff members.

In reality, it wasn’t news, and shouldn’t have shocked anybody. Yes, it differed in several particulars from the typical campus rape. (Both victim and perpetrator were older than most students and he was a stranger to her; it occurred outside rather than indoors; the felon was one of only 5 percent of rapists to use a firearm; the woman reported it to police.) But the sad fact is that rape is, quite literally, an everyday event on our campus. Although the media — including the Daily — must not have recognized it, they were writing “Dog Bites Man” stories, not “Man Bites Dog.”

The Department of Justice has recently released an important new study: “The Sexual Victimization of College Women.” Its chief finding is about 2.8 percent of women in college experienced a completed or attempted forcible rape in the previous approximately seven months, only about 5 percent of which are reported to police.

Extrapolating from these figures, the authors suggest 4.9 percent of college women suffer such an assault in any given calendar year, and perhaps 20 to 25 percent over the course of a typical undergraduate career. (Graduate students appear to be at considerably lower risk.) This survey appears to be free of the ambiguous questions that provoked heavy criticism of earlier studies reaching similar conclusions.

The Twin Cities campus of the University of Minnesota has 45,361 students. We would therefore expect about 2,200 completed or attempted forcible rapes per year, or about 6 a day on average, assuming the current findings are approximately correct. Contrast that with the average of 57 annual “forcible sex offenses” (including events that would not be classified as rape or attempted rape) the University has reported to the Department of Education over the last three years — the official number a prospective student will see before deciding whether to attend.

In 1999, an independent crime research firm, CAP Index, Inc., reported the University’s neighborhood ranks eighth on their scale of one to 10 (with higher numbers being worse), meaning the crime rate here is three to five times the national rate.

So what can women on campus do to reduce their risk? The new Justice Department study provides several pieces of useful information — some new, some confirming conclusions of previous research.

1) Intoxication is probably the greatest risk factor, apart from simply being female. This is almost certainly due to a combination of the effects of high blood levels of alcohol: One’s physical strength and coordination are impaired, one’s inhibitions (e.g., to flirtatious or overtly sexual behavior) are lowered, and one’s mental alertness is compromised.

Raising this point always brings the charge that one is blaming the victim. Not at all. In an ideal world, a young woman could drink herself into a stupor at any place and time and still not be raped. But in that same ideal world, I could walk through Central Park at midnight with a wad of $100 bills hanging out of my pocket and still not be mugged. We do not live in that world; it is foolhardy and naive to act as if we do.

It is an inescapable fact that choosing to imbibe to the point of being drunk is choosing to be at an increased risk of being raped, as surely as getting in a car with a drunk driver is choosing to be at an increased risk of being injured in a crash. Certainly some people make such choices without deliberation as to the risk that accompanies it, but the risk accompanies the choice nevertheless.

2) Two-thirds of the rapes occurred off-campus, though they might have been locations immediately adjacent to campus, such as bars or apartments. The majority occurred in housing, especially the victim’s own home. Predictably, more than half occurred after midnight, with most of the others happening between 6 p.m. and midnight.

3) Ninety-three percent of the completed forcible rapes and 82 percent of the attempted rapes were committed by classmates, friends and boyfriends/ex-boyfriends; acquaintances and “other” (presumably including strangers) made up the small remaining fraction. However, despite the frequent use of the term “date rape,” only 13 percent of completed rapes and 35 percent of attempted ones occurred on what the victim categorized as a “date.”

But the Justice Department gives interesting data on an additional step women can take to help prevent the escalation of an attempted rape to a completed one: physical resistance.

“For both completed rape and sexual coercion, victims of completed acts were less likely to take protective action than those who experienced attempted victimization. This finding suggests that the intended victim’s willingness or ability to use protection might be one reason attempts to rape and coerce sex failed. Note that the most common protective action was using physical force against the assailant. Nearly 70 percent of victims of attempted rape used this response — again, a plausible reason many of these acts were not completed.” Unfortunately, the survey did not further elucidate the sub-types of physical resistance used.

The available scientific literature on this question is divided, with some studies concluding physical resistance — with all types considered together — increases a woman’s chance of the rape being completed and/or that she will be seriously injured. (This wording is unavoidable but is not meant to imply that the rape itself is not a grave injury.) Others find the opposite, again with all forms of physical resistance analyzed as one.

However, most recent studies with improved methodology are consistently showing that the more forceful the resistance, the lower the risk of a completed rape, with no increase in physical injury. Sarah Ullman’s original research (Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 1998) and critical review of past studies (Criminal Justice and Behavior, 1997) are especially valuable in solidifying this conclusion.

I wish to single out one particular subtype of physical resistance: Use of a weapon, and especially a firearm, is statistically a woman’s best means of resistance, greatly enhancing her odds of escaping both rape and injury, compared to any other strategy of physical or verbal resistance.

This conclusion is drawn from four types of information.

First, a 1989 study (Furby, Journal of Interpersonal Violence) found that both male and female survey respondents judged a gun to be the most effective means that a potential rape victim could use to fend off the assault. Rape “experts” considered it a close second, after eye-gouging.

Second, raw data from the 1979-1985 installments of the Justice Department’s annual National Crime Victim Survey show that when a woman resists a stranger rape with a gun, the probability of completion was 0.1 percent and of victim injury 0.0 percent, compared to 31 percent and 40 percent, respectively, for all stranger rapes (Kleck, Social Problems, 1990).

Third, a recent paper (Southwick, Journal of Criminal Justice, 2000) analyzed victim resistance to violent crimes generally, with robbery, aggravated assault and rape considered together. Women who resisted with a gun were 2.5 times more likely to escape without injury than those who did not resist and 4 times more likely to escape uninjured than those who resisted with any means other than a gun. Similarly, their property losses in a robbery were reduced more than six-fold and almost three-fold, respectively, compared to the other categories of resistance strategy.

Fourth, we have two studies in the last 20 years that directly address the outcomes of women who resist attempted rape with a weapon. (Lizotte, Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 1986; Kleck, Social Problems, 1990.) The former concludes, “Further, women who resist rape with a gun or knife dramatically decrease their probability of completion.” (Lizotte did not analyze victim injuries apart from the rape itself.) The latter concludes that “resistance with a gun or knife is the most effective form of resistance for preventing completion of a rape”; this is accomplished “without creating any significant additional risk of other injury.”

The best conclusion from available scientific data, then, is when avoidance of rape has failed and one must choose between being raped and resisting, a woman’s best option is to resist with a gun in her hands.
Current Gun Laws Restrict Women’s Defense

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 [email protected].