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Empowered not endangered: from the college campus to the inner city

Originally published in the Rapid City Journal 7/30/2021

It's back to school time, and many of us have teenagers heading off to college. It's a bittersweet milestone watching as your teen prepares to leave for campus; the excitement for a new chapter of their lives is palpable. But, it's also an important time to have a renewed focus on safety.

Back in 2017, I traveled to DC with two female South Dakota colleagues. The first evening out after the sun had set, we left our downtown hotel for dinner at a restaurant a few blocks away, an easy walk. As we turned the first corner, my colleagues headed for the nearest cross street. "Wait," I said. They were both confused. Their route was clearly the shortest and the one suggested by their navigation app. "Look at the street," I replied. "There's very little light, lots of trees, and practically no one around. If we go down one more block, the street is well-lit, women are jogging alone with earbuds in, and families are heading home pushing strollers. That's the street we go down." I added, "It's bad enough we're not armed."

These are a few DC gun laws that prevent (law-abiding) citizens from protecting themselves- prohibition of carrying any weapon that isn't registered in DC (making it difficult for travelers), firearms are never allowed on public transportation, and anyone under the age of 21 is not allowed to possess or carry a firearm. These laws apply to several urban areas across the US, with some cities having even more restrictions. I met Maj Toure recently, the leading force behind Black Guns Matter. His conclusions are stunning. Realistically, the majority of people disarmed in the big cities (Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, for example) are law-abiding, frequently poor, and usually black. The most at-risk individuals living in some of the most dangerous parts of our country have been disarmed. They must adhere to complicated local laws that ignore federal law with hefty fines and jail time and have no access to firearms or firearm safety and training. Yet, criminals always have guns. For some of those big cities with restrictions, a gun disassembled, locked in a safe does very little good when you're attacked in public or in your home in the middle of the night.

Many college campuses have similar gun restriction laws, including those in South Dakota.

When my mom was going to college, while not allowed to be armed, she had an escort permitted to walk with her across campus. Her companion would sit next to the desk to watch over her during class. Afterward, the two of them would head to the library and back to the car for the drive home (this was her Doberman pincher, Strider, who was given full campus access).

While attending college, campus policy didn't afford Antonia Okafort Cover either of these rights to self-protection. Now the Director of Outreach/National Spokesperson at Gun Owners of America and part of the movement Empowered 2A, Antonia recalls being given a handout with safety information and a rape whistle at her university, neither of which protected her when she was assaulted later that year on campus. Antonia's mission is to inform and empower students across the US to become trained and educated in self-defense and the use of firearms and advocate for gun rights on campus.

According to RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network), the nation's largest anti-sexual violence organization, 26.4% of females and 6.8% of males are sexually assaulted during their undergraduate time in college. So, without the ability to be armed, what can teens do to stay safe on South Dakota college campuses? When possible, avoid walking at night. Don't take shortcuts through parks and wooded areas alone. Be aware of who is parked near you in any parking lot- park in well-lit areas close to the front door. If you need to leave an establishment alone at night, ask an employee to walk you to your car. Once in your car, lock it, start it, and drive away; don't sit in your vehicle digging for things or looking at your phone. When you drop off a friend, watch to make sure they get inside the building before you drive away. Try not to have the same pattern and route in your daily routines. When you have to walk alone, keep something in your hand (such as your keys) that could be used for self-defense and remain aware of your surroundings. Take introductory self-defense courses or consider carrying a quality pepper spray gun or stun gun (stun guns are not the best option because you must be within arm's length of the attacker, and remember, tasers are still prohibited). Finally, lobby your legislators to allow campus carry in South Dakota, and tell them to stop infringing on your right to protect yourself.

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