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No, giving college students guns won't stop sexual assault

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

People who want students to be able to carry guns on college campuses used to argue that more guns could prevent tragedies like the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech. Now they're making another argument: that allowing college students to carry concealed weapons could help stop sexual assault.

"If these young, hot little girls on campus have a firearm, I wonder how many men will want to assault them," Nevada assemblywoman, Michele Fiore told The New York Times. "The sexual assaults that are occurring would go down once these sexual predators get a bullet in their head."

At best, this argument is ignorant and disingenuous. At worst, it could be dangerous, because it obscures the truth about sexual assault in favor of stereotypes about rapists who hide in the bushes.

Detailed, national statistics about campus sexual assault are few and far between. But the studies we do have suggest that assailants often don't use force, and that sexual assault is more common when victims are drunk or drugged and unable to consent.

The 2007 Campus Sexual Assault Study — the source of the widely disseminated, if probably inaccurate, statistic that 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted in college — found that 3.4 percent of women were raped under the threat of force. An additional 8.5 percent were raped while they were incapacitated.

Many of the most widely publicized stories about campus sexual assault involve a victim and alleged assailant who knew each other; in some cases, they'd even been involved with each other. And one reason there's a huge discrepancy between surveys that ask about unwanted sex and surveys that ask about sexual assault as a crime is that many women who have been assaulted don't see themselves as victims of a crime.

Even if you think a gun is the best way for a woman to protect herself in a dangerous situation, those aren't the kind of incidents where pulling a gun seems like a natural response.

The argument that guns could help turn the tide on campus sexual assaults implicitly devalues sexual assaults without physical force as not part of the problem. They're most of the problem — and they're going to be harder than this to solve.