Morbid curiosity motivated me to take the National Rifle Association’s “Refuse to be a Victim” safety course last month. I arrived ready to be both appalled and captivated by a Wayne LaPierre-style rant about how gun control laws have destroyed America by turning us all into sitting ducks. As a self-defense teacher for 12 years, I believe that people should be able to use physical resistance to protect themselves. But the NRA’s guns-first approach to personal safety always concerned me, especially since we’re most likely to be assaulted by people we know.
When I first arrived, my expectations were confirmed. The four-hour course was held at a firearms school in a strip mall. A wall of the classroom was lined with brochures about gun rights and crime. One pamphlet described the effort to defend the 2nd Amendment as a “civil rights” struggle. A sign in the bathroom had a picture of a gun and the words “Prayer is the best way to meet the lord. Trespassing is faster.”
But as it turned out, the NRA’s personal safety seminar – which has been taught to more than 100,000 people since it launched in 1993 – had nothing to do with guns. The instructor began with useful information about the types of locks and deadbolts that provide the best home security. He gave practical advice on how to protect yourself from hackers and identity thieves. But when the instruction turned to violent crimes, the guidance was questionable.
The NRA’s approach to personal safety assumes crime can be prevented by ever-present fear. The instruction suggests that threats are everywhere beyond our front door, making the advice impractical for anyone interested in leaving her home. Rather than refusing to be a victim, the seminar can make one feel as though they’re always a victim.
An entire section of the course manual is devoted to telling people never to open their home’s doors to strangers, even a UPS driver who needs a signature. And yet, a subsequent chapter advises people who are being followed to “go to the nearest lighted building or home for help.” What if the nearest home is occupied by a person who follows NRA advice and doesn’t open the door for strangers? We were advised to have a hotel employee accompany us to our rooms, yet beware of someone who may be posing as a hotel employee as a ploy to gain access to our rooms.
There were several other necessary life activities we were told never to do alone: using public restrooms, going to the mailbox and taking out the trash among them. And we should only walk on the edge of sidewalks or down the middle of a street to avoid being pulled into dark alleys.
The two other students in the class with me, a local husband and wife, nodded vigorously with each tip. “I don’t like going anyplace by myself,” the wife said.
After the laundry list of things not to do alone and strangers not to trust, the instructor provided safety tips for the road. The NRA warns drivers to beware of carjackings, but I wondered if the person who wrote this section of the manual had ever driven in a city during rush hour:
“… always allow at least a car’s length of space between you and the car in front of you when stopping for traffic signals. Travel in the right-hand lane when possible so you could escape on the shoulder if the other lanes are filled with cars that could block your escape.”
The impracticality of the NRA’s advice aside, its rules aren’t an effective way of preventing most interpersonal crime. The course suggests that, to avoid becoming a victim, you should fear strangers. But most violent crimes are committed by a relative, friend or acquaintance of the victim. Every piece of safety advice the NRA gave would be relevant only if the assailant was a stranger, and yet nearly two out of three violent crimes are perpetrated by someone the victim knows.
Further, what epidemic of violence in public restrooms and hotel rooms justifies always employing a buddy system? Certainly, you can find news stories about crimes committed in these places, but generally, crime statistics show that public areas are safe. Just 12 percent of violent crimes are committed in commercial areas – including bars, gas stations and banks – and just 0.1 percent occur in hotel or motel rooms, according to federal data. Meanwhile, 43 percent of violent crime occurs in or near a familiar private residence, whether your own, a friend’s or a relative’s.
Where there is an epidemic of violence is on college campuses, where 20 percent of women report having been sexually assaulted, often by people they know. That’s why I teach college-bound girls to resist these types of assaults with practical tools that empower them rather than scare them. I teach them how to respond when a date makes an unwanted sexual advance, how to communicate forcefully, and physical techniques to get out of someone’s grasp.
This approach to self-defense — teaching skills that are relevant to assaults perpetrated by acquaintances – has a growing body of research demonstrating its effectiveness. A study of Canadian college women between 2011 and 2013 found that those who took a self-defense class were 46 percent less likely than a control group to experience rape within a year and 63 percent less likely to experience other types of sexual assault. A study of a similar program at University of Oregon found that 12 percent of women who took a self-defense class experienced sexual violence compared to 30 percent of women who did not take a class.
It is easier to fear strangers than to resist an acquaintance’s inappropriate or violent behavior. Safety awareness can be painful when it involves challenging an uncle who is making sexual comments about a teenage relative or noticing that a new dating partner is trying to isolate us from our friends. But if we want to prevent the majority of violent crime, we need to equip people with practical self-defense skills rather than irrational paranoia. We need to give people tools to manage their physiological stress responses so they can react decisively when a date tries to overpower them. We need to open lines of communication so children feel safe reporting sexual abuse by a relative.
In self-defense courses, I emphasize that the responsibility for violence rests solely with the perpetrator, not the intended victim. Nobody should feel forced to restrict their lives to be safe. Even though stranger violence is declining (while domestic violence is not), the “stranger danger” approach to personal safety is pervasive. Instead, the best way we can help people avoid becoming victims is to arm them with communication tools and self-defense, rather than fear and seclusion.
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