By Antonia Okafor
It was my first year as a public policy graduate student at the University of Texas, Dallas, and I was taking all my classes at night so I could work during the day. Every evening, after class got out around 10, I had to walk through the sprawling parking lots to get to my car. I dreaded that time of day. I would pray that no one was lurking in dimly lit areas or behind cars, and I’d try not to think about the campus police alerts I’d seen about sexual assaults in the area.
I had survived such an assault myself when I was a child. The incident left me acutely aware of the realities of being preyed upon just because you are physically smaller and less likely to protect yourself. I know what it means to feel defenseless.
Now my only means of protection was a rape whistle. I would hold it in one hand and my phone in the other, the numbers 9-1-1 pre-dialed and my finger on the call button. As I neared my car, I would start to jog. It scared me to think that even if I dialed the number and blew the whistle, by the time anyone got to the scene it might be too late. When I got to my car, I’d get in, lock the doors and look behind me to make sure no one was in the back seat.
This was in 2015, around the time the Texas Legislature began debating, and ultimately passing, a so-called campus carry bill. I grew up in a Democratic, immigrant household in a suburb outside of Dallas, where guns and gun policy were never discussed, so I hadn’t paid much attention when similar bills failed in 2011 and 2013. But that year something changed. I was 25 years old, commuting alone, and as a minority woman, I felt particularly vulnerable.
I started fighting for students’ rights to carry concealed weapons for selfish reasons: I wanted to be able to protect myself. But I quickly found a network of women who felt the same way I did, and we began to advocate for our safety together. I eventually became the Southwest director of Students for Concealed Carry, and am now the founder of the self-defense nonprofit Empowered, which will open its first chapter this fall, at the University of North Texas. (I have also appeared in ads for the National Rifle Association, but I am not employed by the organization.)
When I started advocating for concealed carry on campus, I was not a “gun enthusiast” or a member of any Second Amendment organizations. I had only recently been taught to shoot by a concerned local firearms instructor who had heard about a scare I had with a cyberstalker.
But from the minute I put my hands around a Ruger LC9 pistol, the gun I regularly carry with me now, I felt more in control. I felt empowered to be holding a tool that could protect me physically, and I was determined to learn how to use it responsibly. It was a relief to know that I could shoot if I had to, even though I would never use my gun unless it was a last means of self-defense. I got my concealed carry license a year ago.
In addition to Texas, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah and Wisconsin all now allow students with concealed carry permits to carry guns inside the buildings of college campuses. I have learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about these bills. In Texas, only concealed handgun license holders who are 21 years old or older can carry firearms on campus. The rule applies only to public schools, and those schools can also set aside gun-free zones in whatever locations they choose. Anyone who brings a gun on campus must be trained by an instructor certified by the Texas Department of Public Safety.
Still, I regularly encounter liberals who fear irresponsible gun use and think that college kids (even if they are 21) can’t be trusted with firearms. I understand that fear is a powerful motivator on both sides of this issue. But I fiercely resent being told that I can’t protect myself according to my rights as an American.
The Justice Department estimates that one in five women are assaulted during college. This number does not surprise me, although plenty of my fellow conservatives take issue with it. I have met so many women through my gun advocacy who felt helpless in the face of sexual assault before they carried a weapon — they felt that no one would listen to them, that they didn’t have any options. It is a huge failing of the conservative movement not to take this seriously. Even if the one out of five statistic is imprecise, isn’t one assaulted woman bad enough?
Female gun ownership isn’t a matter of political affiliation. I’ve met women across the political spectrum who own guns for self-defense or for shooting recreationally. In particular, black women have become a lot more interested in gun ownership and shooting classes.
The rights and values of gun-owning women aren’t being addressed by either political party. While conservatives aren’t paying enough attention to sexual assault, liberals are actively hurting women’s access to self-defense. Many liberals — including many female professors my organization approached as potential sponsors for Empowered — don’t support a woman’s “right to choose” when it comes to her own self-defense. They can’t get behind a vision of female empowerment that doesn’t match their own.
Contrary to popular belief, there is a place for young, pro-Second Amendment women in modern feminism. And there is a place for them on college campuses.