Of guns and patriarchy

“Carry a concealed weapon. That’ll fix it.”

This statement was part of public comments Sheriff Chuck Wright of Spartanburg County, South Carolina made after a woman was brutally raped in his department’s jurisdiction. It would be easy to dismiss Wright’s comments as  insensitive  victim blaming if this tired argument ― more guns equals fewer rapes ― wasn’t being passed around by everyone from senators to second amendment advocates and gun owners in the US and Canada in light of the furor in the US regarding gun control.

One of their most popular arguments is based on statistics which show that countries with stricter gun laws (e.g., Canada, Britain, Australia) have more incidents of sexual assault and rape. This data is often used by gun advocates to deflect criticism stemming from statistics demonstrating the effectiveness of gun control in countries other than the US, and they also often make a logical leap in extrapolating that the differences in sexual assault rates are due to rapists not having to worry about armed women in such countries. This argument is exemplified in economist John Lott’s book, More Guns, Less Crime, wherein he claims, “nondiscretionary [concealed carry] laws coincide with fewer murders, aggravated assaults, and rapes.”

Lott’s claim has been hotly debated. In their rebuttal, Stanford Law Professor John J. Donohue III and Ian Ayres of Yale Law School write, “On the other hand, we find that the statistical evidence that these laws have reduced crime is limited, sporadic, and extraordinarily fragile.” 

The idea that countries, municipalities, or counties with less strict gun control laws have reduced crime rates ― and, in particular, rape rates ― confuses correlation with causality. It supposes that there is a magic cure for very complex problems. Further, the attitude that guns are needed to protect women is dangerous in and of itself.

The problem with this line of thinking ― a line that seems to be presented mostly by men to women ― is centred on the assumption that all rape in America happens as a random violent street encounter. The reality is that most rape  happens between friends, family and acquaintances. According to the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre (ORCC), 82 per cent of rapes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows. Though the random stranger encounter is a reality, it is in fact much more rare. So, while carrying a gun everywhere you go might deter this method of assault, there remains a whole other issue that gun activists and society more generally are ignoring.

In response to Wright’s claim that concealed weapons will “fix it,” Lynn Hawkins wrote in the Herald-Journal, “The fact is that very few rapes are perpetrated by strangers. We warn our children, our friends and family members to be careful of strangers when we should be warning them about those they know … How willing and able would you be to pull the trigger on your relative, friend, spouse, boyfriend or someone else you know?”

Studies show that the majority of rapes are premeditated. This is clearly not the spontaneous assault we have been taught as a norm,  but rather the result of calculated violence and force. Studies on the characteristics of sexual assault perpetrators counter the notion that rapists are pathologically sick, perverted, and candidates for institutionalization. Citing data from Statistics Canada, the ORCC website stresses that “Sexual Assault can be perpetrated by ANYBODY,” noting that sexual offender rates are highest among men aged 12 to 34 and that 37 per cent are married or common-law.

Rape is about power and control, and most rape happens behind closed doors in an environment the victim is familiar with. In that context, a gun is almost never nearby and would prove to be completely useless at best.

In addition to reinforcing popular myths surrounding rape in our culture, the “more guns = less rape” argument once again puts the onus of rape prevention on the victims of rape: women. When I asked the director of the Ottawa Rape Crisis Centre why the vast majority of women don’t report their assaults ― reporting rates over the last thirty years have never gone above ten per cent ― she explained that many women feel that it was somehow their fault. We have managed to convince women that they are at fault for their own victimization.

Many women fear that they will be revictimized in a courtroom by having to face the usual grilling over every minute detail of her behavior, and they are afraid (justifiably so) that they will be put “on trial” along with the accused. It bears repeating that rape is a premeditated act of violence. Women aren’t raped because of what they wear, drink, say, do or don’t do, nor are they raped because they don’t have a gun on them or because the society they live in has enacted strict gun laws. Women get raped because men rape.

This is a complex problem in a world that loves an easy fix, and it requires a complex variety of tactics to combat it. First and foremost, it requires educating men and boys on consent, and dismantling the myths and wilful ignorance that surround it.

Men rape because of systematic inequality of power between men and women in a culture of patriarchy that teaches that men are entitled to women’s bodies. It is perhaps symptomatic of a culture of patriarchy that the solution to rape is to wave a gun around rather than addressing what should be staggeringly obvious: misogyny.

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