America’s gun fetish is by now self-evident, the bulge in our collective trousers too large to ignore no matter how practiced we are in denial. Not even church massacres and school shootings can quell it. It runs far beyond simple kinkiness; our gun fetish is an anthropological phenomenon. We’ve imbued guns with sacred powers, and declared that questioning those powers is taboo.
Gun fetishists possess an enduring faith in the mystical ability of guns to ward off all dangers: muggers, rapists, dark-skinned terrorists, and teenagers carrying Skittles. And the gun lobby has avidly cultivated this magical thinking, so that a sizeable chunk of the American public has now been conditioned to think they must carry guns to stay safe, or have no safety at all.
Imagine my delight, then, as my workplace is about to become a proving ground for the NRA’s specious logic. Last spring the Texas Legislature passed a Campus Carry law that will allow concealed handguns in classrooms, offices, and dormitories at the university where I work. This law will go into effect on August 1, 2016, which is — I am not shitting you; look it up — the fiftieth anniversary of Charles Whitman’s murder of 14 people on our campus. The building I work in every day still bears bullet holes from Whitman’s rifle.
Which is why last month I found myself standing with faculty, staff, and students on the steps of the University of Texas Tower, the building where Whitman, first in a long, inglorious line of campus shooters, killed and died. We took turns speaking about the chilling effect of guns on free speech and safety. As befits those who work at an institution of higher education, we cited data to support our claims. We spoke to a large crowd of sympathetic listeners, plus a few counter-protestors, including a few students with signs that said things like, “Demand self defense on campus,” and “Campus carry saves lives.”
I wasn’t surprised to see them. The NRA has observed the recent national focus on campus sexual assault rates, and is mining the associated outrage for it own profit. Campus Carry, its minions have declared, will reduce campus rape. Or as Nevada Assemblywoman Michele Fiore explained to the New York Times, “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.”
Sociologist Jennifer Carlson has summed up such idiocy by observing that “the image of female frailty colors pro-gun discourse. The pro-gun lobby supports women’s armed self-defense on the premise that women are incomplete and utterly vulnerable without guns.”
That’s a premise I’ve spent most of my life testing, and I can tell you with full confidence that claims about the necessity of guns for self defense, especially women’s self defense, are bullshit. I know the devastating power the female body can generate, and I’ve made a study of the vulnerabilities all human bodies possess. I’ll bet I’ve also read a lot more research on the subject of campus sexual assault than Assemblywoman Fiore has. Unless she envisions college women carrying guns on dates (where half of college rapes take place, according to the National Institute of Justice), or shooting boys who sit too close to them at frat parties (since over 80% of sexual assault perpetrators are known to their victims), then her cheerful little snuff fantasies are just that: fantasies.
The stranger-in-the-bushes scenarios that gun proponents love to invoke bear almost no resemblance to the real threats college women face. Yet the discussion about Campus Carry is dominated by references to stalkers, “predators,” and “bad guys,” which is what our son used to call the gray plastic army men he would line up in opposition to the green plastic “good guys,” when he was six years old. That the term “bad guys” is being used by supposedly serious people to craft actual laws is a sign of just how far removed from reality our national conversation about guns has become. Proponents of gun proliferation seem to prefer a world where nuance doesn’t exist, and the modern knowledge bases built by psychologists, sociologists, physicians, criminologists, economists, actuaries, and statisticians are excluded from policy decisions. They prefer a green and gray plastic world, where threats can be neutralized with the flick of a finger.
In keeping with the toybox-sized universe they think in, supporters of gun proliferation love to imagine little bedtime stories where the Good Guy (or “hot little girl”) pulls out a gun and the Bad Guy gets what he deserves. Pro-gun researchers have attempted to aggregate such stories, using them to claim widespread, effective use of guns for self defense. The methods they’ve employed to analyze the data are rife with basic statistical errors, but that hasn’t stopped them from touting wildly inflated figures for defensive use of guns. When criminal court judges analyzed narratives of people who claimed to have used guns in self defense, they found that a majority of those uses were in fact not justifiable self defense, but often illegal — even assuming the gun-wielder had a permit and didn’t lie or embellish their story. Self-proclaimed armed “self-defenders” much more often, it turns out, engage in what used to be known as chance-medley encounters. That’s where two guys (it’s usually guys) get into a pissing match in a parking lot, one pulls out a gun, and the other one runs away. Which is not “self defense.” Rather, it is what self-defense instructor Lynne-Marie Wanamaker aptly terms, “grownups who don’t know how to use their words.”
Research into unarmed resistance, on the other hand, has produced robust evidence that it reduces violence. Unarmed self defense is very effective, and it’s simple to teach, learn, and practice. What’s more, skills that prevent and disrupt violence — assertive communication, boundary setting, distancing — can be used daily, in thousands of small ways, to improve the safety of our communities. That’s something guns can never do.
On the contrary: guns make everyone around them less safe, especially women. As Dr. Deborah Azrael at the Harvard School of Public Health puts it, “What we know is where there are more guns, more women die. That’s just incontrovertibly true." Guns dramatically increase the rate of death by suicide and accident, and the evidence suggests they significantly increase violent assault. For example, a 2014 study by researchers at Stanford and Johns Hopkins universities found that Right To Carry laws increase the rate of aggravated assault anywhere from eight to 33%, and also increase the rates of rape and robbery. The exact rate isn’t clear, the authors note, because the gun lobby has worked so tirelessly to thwart researchers’ access to relevant data. NRA pressure has induced Congressional Republicans to defund the Centers for Disease Control’s firearms injury research center, and to forbid any injury research that could be used, even potentially, by anyone, to promote gun control. And let’s not even get into the harassment and threats that are a matter of course for researchers studying gun violence.
“Bang, bang, you’re dead,” is the gun lover’s response to every threat — even the threat of accurate information.
Here’s a premise-based argument to set against the NRA’s claim that helpless women need guns for protection:
Since we know that
1. Unarmed self defense works very well, especially for women; and
2. Armed self defense is, at best, no better; and
3. Guns vastly increase the risk to everyone around them, especially women;
— we can reasonably conclude that gun proponents’ advocacy of “women’s self defense” (defined as armed self defense, or nothing) is motivated not by concern for women, but by political self-interest.
The premises of this argument are based on a deep base of peer-reviewed research conducted by scholars in many disciplines, working at many different institutions. The truth of each premise is continually being tested. That’s what people who work at universities do. And it’s what students learn to do in college, we hope. Certainly it’s what I’ve always tried to teach my writing students — to analyze data and its sources, consider opposing points of view, and draw conclusions based on evidence.
We don’t teach college students these skills in the hope that they’ll go on to overpower, dominate, or silence others. We teach them to do these things because that’s how civilized people disagree.
As our rally was taking place in Texas last month—literally as we were speaking about the danger of guns in classrooms — nine people were being murdered by a gunman at Umpqua Community College in Oregon.
The first victim was Professor Lawrence Levine, a writing instructor. He was teaching an introductory composition class in which the shooter was enrolled. I’ve taught basic comp many times. I think it’s one of the most important courses in any student’s college career, where they learn to suspend judgment and become comfortable with uncertainty. In a composition class, students learn to question assumptions and complicate their understanding of the world. The composition classroom is a place where, ideally, the value of tolerance becomes clear to students, and the project of advancing collective knowledge begins to seem more important than the task of defending an individual’s unexamined beliefs.
One of Levine’s students disagreed so fundamentally with that project that he felt compelled to kill everyone engaged in it. The only value he believed in was the power of his guns, and he murdered nine of his fellow humans who didn’t share that belief.
Realize this: If you believe in the power of anything but the gun, you are at odds with today’s NRA.
If you believe in the power of courage, of love, of rational thought, of honesty, of charity or compassion or forgiveness, then the gun lobby and the frightened mob it has created regard you as an existential threat, and they will do anything it takes to silence you. They will lie, obfuscate, bully, threaten, and strut across the graves of murdered children. They have no shame, no empathy, and no guts — no stomach at all for the complicated work that allows civilization to function.
There are a lot of debates this country desperately needs to have about power and force and respect — about who owes what to whom, and why. We should, as a society, be discussing the scope of our tolerance and the uses we make of violence. We can’t have those discussions if we are dead or scared into silence.
Which is exactly what the gun lobby wants: Silence. Make no mistake, their agenda is not about preserving rights. Rights presume responsibilities, and the gun lobby has systematically evaded its own responsibilities. Since 2005, the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act has given gun manufacturers and sellers unparalleled immunity from liability for the damage their products cause. What is really at stake for gun advocates is comfort. The “rights” they demand are no more than a pathological need to swaddle themselves in a cocoon of deadly weaponry, to avoid the uncomfortable scrutiny of civic discourse, and to be absolved of any consequences others suffer as a result.
No one has that right. No one who is fit to live in a civilized nation would propose it.
No one who wants to live in a civilized nation should countenance it.