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A Fighting Chance

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Fighting Chance

Unable to carry a firearm for protection while on campus, concealed-carry permit holder Amanda Collins was brutally raped. Today, her fight to save other women from a similar fate is helping her along the road to healing.

Amanda Collins never had a chance.

If anyone could have physically resisted a six-foot-tall attacker with martial arts training, it would have been her. After all, she is a second-degree black belt in Tae kwon do.

“It took me a few years to realize that not everybody’s parents made them get their second-degree black belt to get their driver’s license,” Collins laughed during an exclusive interview with America’s 1st Freedom.

Collins, a concealed-carry permit holder, studied education and English at the University of Nevada, Reno. But there are two things that are against the law on Nevada college campuses—rape, and carrying a gun for protection against rapists. Like the vast majority of “enlightened” public universities nationwide, UNR prohibits lawfully armed citizens from protecting themselves on campus.

Just like thousands of other students, Collins was deprived of the right to defend herself.

On Oct. 22, 2007, Collins was on campus to take a late-night midterm. She parked in the same garage where campus police park their cruisers—less than 100 yards from the police station—to avoid having to cross campus after dark.
Leaving class after 10 p.m., the attractive 5-foot-2 junior dutifully followed the “safety in numbers” rule by walking with several classmates to the garage until they parted ways to their different levels.

Displaying the awareness inherent in a concealed-carry permit holder with a black belt in martial arts, Collins scanned the area around her car as she approached. She didn’t see the man hunched down between two vehicles, patiently waiting. In an instant, the man pulled Collins down, put a gun to her temple, clicked off the safety and ordered her not to say anything.

Amanda Collins never had a chance.

In January 2008, Reno came alive with volunteers desperate to find a young woman who disappeared not far from the University of Nevada, Reno campus. Brianna Denison, 19, was staying with a friend during winter break and went missing in the middle of the night.

The search came to an end when Denison’s body was found four weeks later. Authorities determined she’d been kidnapped, raped and brutally strangled. Her naked body was left to freeze, crudely hidden beneath a discarded Christmas tree.

Brianna Denison never had a chance.

Students on campus became increasingly fearful as time went by and no arrests were made. Authorities began to question if the attack was related to previous incidents. College officials issued the same feckless guidelines, such as “be aware of your surroundings,” “don’t walk across campus after dark” and “travel in groups.” They also attentively supplied “rape whistles” to female students. (Local gun shops reported a surge in more practical self-defense measures.)

After Denison’s murder, authorities spoke with Collins about similarities in the two cases. Collins gave a physical description to a police sketch artist, and within months police tracked down and arrested James Biela, a construction worker who at one point worked on campus near where both attacks occurred.

Collins spent the day before her graduation testifying at trial. During the sentencing phase of the trial, she read a statement saying she forgave Biela for his actions but believed he should face immeasurable consequences, just as he condemned her to endure.

On June 2, 2010, Biela was sentenced to death for the murder of Denison. He currently sits on Nevada’s death row while his case is appealed.

Months later, Collins approached the NRA about decriminalizing concealed carry at Nevada’s public universities. A bill doing so passed the state senate, but was ultimately defeated by Assembly Judiciary Chairman William Horne, who refused to bring the bill up for a vote. Arguing against the bill were faculty members and police officers—most of whom presumably had never been raped or strangled on campus—who raised concerns about their own safety if the same people who carried off campus exercised that right while on campus.

During a recent interview, Collins shared her thoughts on her attack, her fight to legalize campus carry and her road to healing.

Thanks for talking with us, Amanda. Can you start by explaining your background with guns? I grew up with firearms in my household. They were never made a secret with my sister and me, and that’s largely due to my dad. He introduced them to us with a very healthy respect for them. I remember being down in his workshop when I was little, sitting up on the table while he was cleaning his firearms, and he would talk very frankly with me about them. I always had an understanding of their capability. I was about 5 or 6 when I started target practicing. I remember the first time I went shooting with Dad, he bought me a little chipmunk .22. My thumb wasn’t strong enough to pull back the hammer so he always had to do it for me every time. When I was in high school I tried out for the rifle team and made it, and participated in that for three years.

So you were allowed to handle firearms at high school but not college? Yeah. In a controlled environment, but yeah. That’s kind of crazy, huh?

What prompted you to get your concealed carry permit? I was raised by both my parents not to be an easy target. My parents did everything they could to make sure that if somebody wanted me, I wouldn’t be an easy target. As a petite woman, I realized that even with martial arts training, realistically, the only equalizing factor between me and an opponent much larger than myself would be a firearm, so I wanted the ability to actively and realistically participate in my own self-protection.

Did you ever face any threatening situations prior to your attack? Well, a lot of martial arts training emphasizes not putting yourself in that situation or putting yourself in that position where you have to be that close to somebody. If nothing else, it helped me avoid putting myself in a situation that would require that.

How did it strike you when you learned you couldn’t carry on campus? I found out in the concealed-carry class. I suppose at first it was troublesome and it kind of irritated me; I didn’t understand why I could be trusted at the deli shop across the street, and then as soon as I crossed that arbitrary line, I was suddenly deemed incompetent and unable to make sound decisions or untrustworthy for whatever reason by the same authorities who granted me the permission to carry in the first place.

Did you ask for permission [to carry before the attack]? I didn’t even know there was a system in place to ask for permission from the president to carry. I guess I just accepted it for what it was—not so happily. I took it for what it was and continued to be aware of my surroundings and ensure my safety. You don’t want to cause waves because in the end you want that pretty, expensive piece of paper to hang on your wall.

What did you do after your attack? Anyone who’s ever been raped can relate that you make a plan to survive. My plan at the time was denial—“this did not happen to me.” Everything I’d done up to this point was to prevent me from finding myself in that situation. I honestly don’t know how I made it home. I went to my sorority house and took a shower, because I just wanted to get all that filth off of me and just wash it all away. I drove home, went to bed, woke up and honestly did not remember what had happened. My brain had just allowed me to believe that I’d had the worst nightmare when I was sleeping. It wasn’t until two weeks later that I went back to the parking garage to park there for class and remembered everything that happened.

When did you finally tell someone? I confided in my roommate probably a week or so after that. I was very edgy, very angry, just not myself. She was my best friend at the time and knew something was off and could tell. She wanted me to go and report it, but I didn’t want to because I didn’t have any physical evidence at that point, and I knew that, and I really, really wanted to avoid it, avoid going to court, avoid going through the whole justice process. I felt there was no way I could give the police anything that could help them catch this guy. There was no DNA left, basically just my story.

What got you involved in the end? A young gal in the area went missing; her name was Brianna Denison. Her case was believed to be linked to another case that had occurred in December. My roommate had a gut feeling that it was the same guy who had attacked me, so she said, “You need to go and report this, because I think it’s the same guy.” And I said, “No, it’s not, just leave it be.” And so I didn’t make any efforts to call the detectives or authorities. She actually contacted them, told them what had happened and gave them my contact information. Once they approached me, I realized it was no longer just about me. They were trying to find Brianna. I really didn’t think that giving them my story would amount to that much. I went in and told them what happened, and there were enough similarities between the attacks for them to believe it was the same person; I was able to give a description to the sketch artist. That actually ended up being a very important piece of evidence in the trial. About 10 months later, they found their man.

Do you feel like the college is responsible for what happened to you? It’s interesting, because Adam Garcia, the chief of police, said they recognized that they had failed me miserably. If the college denies us the ability to participate in our self-defense, then they assume responsibility for every individual that comes onto their campus. My case is a perfect example of that. My inability to be able to carry allowed [Biela] to continue assaulting women, and ultimately he murdered one, too. So I think there is a shared responsibility in that. It’s like my mom has asked the chancellor of the university, “If guns aren’t the answer, then what is? Where were your police when my daughter was being raped?” Oftentimes, police officers only show up after the fact. First responders are good and essential and necessary—but instant responders are better. The university takes instant responders out of the equation.

The college granted you a special right to carry after your attack, didn’t they? Right. We sent them a letter, and they called my dad. They told him that before [University of Nevada, Reno] President Milton Glick ever entertained the idea of someone carrying a gun on campus, I needed to undergo an interview process with the chief of police. My dad went with me, and they asked me a slew of questions. It boiled down to the fact that I was terrified to go on campus. We didn’t know where this guy was, we didn’t know if he was still following me because the police originally thought he knew my pattern and my behavior well enough to grab me in the way that he did. I didn’t know if I was being watched. It was just a lot of uncertainty. They ultimately ended up granting me the permission I asked for, but there were a lot of contingencies. I had to be a full-time student, I had to have my firearm inspected, I couldn’t tell anybody. If any one of those things had been violated, then the permission would be null and void.

So if you offered protection to one of your classmates, you would lose your own right to protection? Right, it’s almost like they took away my First Amendment rights in giving me my Second Amendment rights. If I had told anyone, “Hey, let me walk you to your car and then you can drive me to mine because I have the ability to protect us both,” then in theory it would have been null and void.

Are there any no-gun signs marked on campus? You know, I’ve never seen one. I know the parking garage has been lit up a lot more and they installed call boxes on campus. But a call box above my head while I was being straddled wouldn’t be any more help than the police were that night. What am I supposed to do, ask my attacker to hold on and then run and push the button, then fight off my attacker while telling the operator what’s going on?

The Las Vegas Review-Journal quoted you as saying you had thoughts of suicide. Can you explain that? What are the lingering effects of being defenseless on campus? I struggled with survivor’s guilt. Why did [Denison] lose her life and I didn’t? I struggled a lot—it still keeps me up at times. The unanswered question in my life will always be, “What would have been different if I had my firearm with me that night?” I can play that incident in my head over and over again, but there’s one outcome that will always be the same—two other rapes would have been prevented, and one woman would be alive today. The thoughts of suicide are really hard to talk about. I think it was, after being raped, just not wanting to process it through and not wanting to figure out how to find peace after what happened. It’s a lot of emotionally draining work. But also the stress of the trial caused my husband and me to endure two miscarriages and 16 months of infertility after that, not to mention all the internal turmoil.

How do you feel about the failure of legislators to pass the campus carry bill in Nevada? Disappointed. It would have been one thing to lose in a fair fight. It is quite another to be “sucker punched,” as my dad puts it. All of the support it received does give me hope that I will see the bill pass in the future, and I have to remind myself that women did not get the right to vote the first time around.

How have you found healing since your attack? What would you tell others facing similar issues? Healing will be a continual process for the rest of my life, and I would not have ever been able to come to this point without my faith in Jesus. My faith has been so crucial. I don’t know how people get through tragedy without it. That is not to say that my faith has made it easier or less painful, but I think my faith made it more bearable by allowing me to know that there was a greater purpose, even if I couldn’t understand it or see how any good could come from it.

It is so important to get help to process through everything. Finding a way to help others through my experience has been so helpful. Honestly, when I reached the point where I was willing to allow some amount of good to come from my most devastating experience, I never in a million years fathomed that I would be led down the path of advocating for campus carry. I truly thought I would become a part of someone’s support system and be able to help them walk through the healing process. It wasn’t until I was in a business writing class for school and was given an assignment to write a paper. I wrote about campus carry. I showed my dad a copy, and he asked me if I was serious about wanting that to change. My response was, “Well, yeah, but who am I? I wouldn’t even know where to begin.” So my dad made some calls to the NRA and that was the conception of the Nevada Campus Protection Act.

I knew that this would require me to revisit my attack countless times and there are some days when it is a lot more painful than others, but the ultimate goal of saving lives and keeping others safe makes it worthwhile.

Following Biela’s arrest, news agencies reported that “girls on campus can finally feel safe.”

Unfortunately, events often highlight the difference between feeling safe and being safe. On July 15, 2011, police at the University of Nevada, Reno alerted students of an offender who attacked a student from behind and groped her buttocks and breasts.

Records indicate there are more than 500 convicted sex offenders living within Reno city limits, and nationwide averages tell us there are about nine sexual assaults every day on college campuses around the country—and that’s just the ones that are reported. Yet college professors and bureaucrats dare to claim fear of licensed permit holders over rapists, and pursue a political agenda that empowers criminals rather than victims.

Few of us require blood ties before stepping up to defend the innocent. But how would you feel if this was your family member? What regrets would plague your nights if your wife, daughter or sister were brutally violated?

“My dad was very supportive when I finally told him,” Collins said. “I think his heart was broken because he wasn’t able to protect me the way a dad should protect his daughter.”

Like the police, we can’t always be around to protect those we love. The least we can do is make sure the law doesn’t threaten them with prison for being prepared to protect themselves.

The least we can do is give them a fighting chance.

David Burnett is the director of public relations for Students for Concealed Carry. For more information, visit
www.concealedcampus.org

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.