Savannah Lindquist desperately tried to remember what she’d learned in the women’s self-defense class.

She jerked her wrists, fighting to break her attacker’s grasp. She couldn’t.

He’d come over for a movie and a beer, and now he was pushing himself on her as she screamed at him to leave. They struggled across her North Philadelphia apartment, which she’d moved into that fall for her senior year. She got close enough to the counter to grab her key ring, the one with the bright red whistle with “Temple University” emblazoned on it in white. She blew the whistle. No one came.

It’s really happening, Lindquist thought. You need to save yourself.

He forced her onto her bed. She wished she could find a way to get to the knives in the kitchen, but it was too late.

And as the man she’d thought was a friend raped her, Lindquist thought of the handgun her grandfather had bought for her 10th birthday. The handgun sitting in her house in Virginia, nearly 300 miles away, instead of on her hip or at her bedside.

The handgun Lindquist believes could have saved her.

That night in 2016 became the dynamite that blasted away Lindquist’s life path, derailing her dreams of being her family’s first college graduate. In an instant, her views on gun rights morphed from theoretical to rooted in traumatic personal experience: If carrying firearms on campus were legal, she believes, her KelTec gun would have been in her apartment and she would not have been raped.

Now, Lindquist has a rising profile in gun-rights activism — interviewed on NRA TV, invited to speak, writing opinion pieces. Last month, the 24-year-old testified at the first hearing in Congress on gun violence in years. She sat next to a student from Parkland, Fla., who saw classmates shot to death last February.

As mass shootings like Parkland, Las Vegas, and Orlando have spurred urgent calls for gun control and alter the national conversation about gun laws, the voices in the debate often fall into predictable, polarized camps. But Lindquist doesn’t fit into a political box.

Some expect her to be a “right-wing nut job” because of her views on guns, she says, but she isn’t a National Rifle Association member, doesn’t believe everyone needs a gun, and criticizes advocates who portray firearms as a panacea. She advocates for the right to carry guns on campus and opposes proposals like universal background checks, but she also says the country needs to address sexual assault as an epidemic.

Lindquist has found herself at the intersection of the debate on gun laws and the #Metoo movement’s dialogue about sexual assault. She has encountered liberals who support sexual-assault survivors but not gun-rights advocates; conservatives who downplay sexual violence but use it to promote gun ownership. Both sides have supported and dismissed her.

In response, Lindquist, a libertarian, advocates for the gun-rights movement and pro-liberty politics to become more welcoming to women. She makes her call for gun rights “as a woman, as a feminist” and works for a libertarian group trying to “bridge that gap between personal freedom and women, to show them why it matters uniquely to the female experience.”

Most of all, she wants women to have “a choice in defending themselves in the best way for them.” For her, because she’s trained and comfortable, that’s with a firearm.

“Guns aren’t a miracle cure,” Lindquist said this month as she sat on the teal-and-pink plaid couch in her grandmother’s living room in Norfolk, Va. But “when it came to that moment. … I couldn’t fight him off no matter how hard I tried, but my gun serves as an equalizer. It doesn’t negate his power, but it brings mine up to his level and I have a fighting chance.”

Savannah Lindquist practices shooting at Bob's Handgun Range in Norfolk. She practices regularly at the range.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Savannah Lindquist practices shooting at Bob's Handgun Range in Norfolk. She practices regularly at the range.

A feminist perspective

About one in five American women owns a gun, according to a 2017 Pew Research Center study, compared to about two in five men. Of U.S. gun owners, women make up about one-third; 71 percent say their gun is for protection.

The idea that guns are an equalizer is one long promoted by the NRA, part of a larger narrative that gun ownership empowers women. It casts gun-rights advocates as feminists, publishing articles like “How the Second Amendment became a women’s movement,” posting Instagram memes showing women holding guns with slogans such as “[like] if you agree a restraining order is just a piece of paper,” and launching the NRA Women TV channel.

Feminist activists and gun-control supporters criticize those tactics as manipulative, pointing to statistics showing that when guns are in their homes, women are more likely to be killed by one than saved. (The same study showed that if a victim has access to a gun but lives separately from her partner, it could slightly lower her risk of being killed.)

Lindquist’s attack isn’t reflected in any study. She never filed charges against her rapist or publicly named him. She has, however, detailed the assault in multiple interviews, including an hours-long talk with The Inquirer, and described it under oath before Congress. (The Inquirer also spoke with three people she privately told about the rape in the months after it occurred.)

“I do want people to know they’re not alone,” Lindquist said, “whether that’s being sexually assaulted while in college, or straddling that really weird line where you’re conservative but you’re also a survivor.”

Growing up with guns

Poppop was the one who taught her how to shoot — and how to be responsible with a gun. After begging her grandfather to take her to the gun range, Lindquist got her wish when she turned 10.

With her parents divorced, Lindquist lived with her father in Norfolk, and her grandparents helped raise her. She and Poppop would go to Bob’s Gun Shop and shoot at the upstairs range Lindquist still visits. Afterward, they’d often eat at Doumar’s, a nearby diner that claims to have invented the waffle cone.

“It just became a thing,” recalled Lindquist, who has Poppop tattooed on her arm in his own handwriting. “It was like our time.”

Growing up in the aging military town, Lindquist couldn’t wait to get out. The straight-A student wanted to make her family proud at college.

Lindquist liked Temple University for its working-class roots as a night school. When she arrived in August 2013, it truly was her dream school. A neuroscience and religion double major, she also became heavily involved in campus activities. As a junior, she won Temple’s Diamond Award, the highest recognition from Student Affairs for leadership, service, and academic achievement.

“I just felt like I belonged there,” Lindquist said. She proudly wore shirts with slogans like “Self Made, Philly Made, Temple Made.” Her grandparents bought her a 2017 class ring; she knew which diploma frame she wanted from the campus bookstore.

But her gun stayed home. Public universities in Pennsylvania make their own rules about campus carry. Some allow firearms in certain open spaces on campus; Temple prohibits them everywhere.

“While we understand that there are, unfortunately, cases where a gun may have helped a victim ... there’s nothing that indicates that allowing campus carry has actually decreased crime on campus.”
Julie Gavran of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus

Lindquist imagines her gun would’ve been easy to reach on her hip and could’ve quickly scared off her attacker. She says the government — and public universities — shouldn’t restrict gun rights or interfere with people’s personal freedoms. “I’m for campus carry because I believe it would’ve saved me,” she said.

Temple University declined to comment about campus carry or Lindquist’s case.

Supporters of such bans say they can prevent suicide and accidents.

“While we understand that there are, unfortunately, cases where a gun may have helped a victim, we look at the other factors as well,” said Julie Gavran of the Campaign to Keep Guns Off Campus. “There’s nothing that indicates that allowing campus carry has actually decreased crime on campus.”

Lindquist moved off-campus for her junior year, but didn’t bring her gun. Though she legally could have had one in her apartment, she spent nearly all her time on campus and would’ve been prohibited from taking it anywhere she frequently went. She didn’t want to leave it at home every day in a neighborhood where break-ins weren’t unusual. She never thought an assault would happen to her.

Helplessness

Poppop died suddenly in August 2016. Lindquist was still grieving two months later, when the student she’d casually been dating came to her apartment. Lindquist wasn’t thinking they would hook up.

When the guy made a move, she said no. He pressured her; she told him to leave. Then he became violent, she said.

As they struggled, there was a moment when Lindquist realized she would not be able to fight him off or escape — that her goal “had shifted from getting away to surviving.”

“I have never felt so helpless in my life,” she said. “It was the worst thing that has ever happened to me.”

It ended in a blur. The man left her apartment; Lindquist was left devastated, thinking she would never be the same. She didn’t want to be a rape victim, didn’t want this to have happened. She tried to convince herself that maybe it hadn’t.

She took a bath, drained it, then stood under the running shower for what felt like hours. The only thing she could think to do was call her grandfather, and he was gone.

“I knew he would’ve driven right up to Pennsylvania and he would’ve gone to the police with me,” she said.

So she didn’t call anybody, except a sexual violence help hotline. She decided no one could ever know. She felt like she couldn’t prove it; she had scrubbed away evidence in the shower, and would only later wish she’d gone for a rape test instead. In the following days, Lindquist became so scared to leave her apartment that she only sometimes made it to class or work.

“It was like holding my whole life in my hands and watching it crumble.”

‘I got my voice back’

After Thanksgiving at home, Lindquist never returned to Temple, though she didn’t tell anyone why. If someone asked what was wrong, she blamed her grandfather’s death.

Lindquist often drove to a nearby beach to sit and look at the waves. She found comfort thinking about God and the expanse of the universe.

She also found support in her church. As winter became spring, she told her women’s group about the rape. That freed her to tell her grandmother the real reason she left Temple. Then she started confiding in friends and family.

When that school year ended, Lindquist returned to North Philly to clear out her still-rented apartment. She moved in with her grandmother, with plans to attend Old Dominion University in Norfolk.

With therapy, she worked toward recovery. But Lindquist felt a growing urge “to scream, ‘I told you so,’ at the top of my lungs” — she wanted to tell her story in defense of carrying guns on campus.

In the fall of 2017, a friend pushed Lindquist to put pen to paper. She wrote an opinion piece that ended up in the Washington Examiner.

“I never, ever felt so free in my life,” she recalled. “It was one of those moments when I felt like I got my voice back.”

After that, Lindquist formed her mission to inspire women to defend themselves and advocate for victims of sexual assault. Finishing her degree online means she can work at the same time — and also can avoid being unarmed on campus. Aside from doctor’s visits, Lindquist carries her handgun most places in Virginia.

She believes a firearm is a good option for many women like her. Standing at 4-foot-9, having had knee surgeries as a teenager, and having gained about 100 pounds after the assault, Lindquist says she can’t “bust out kung fu” if someone attacks her: “I have to have a way to reliably defend myself, and for me, that’s a gun that goes off when you pull the trigger.”

Lindquist fires a weapon at the handgun range.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Lindquist fires a weapon at the handgun range.

A reminder of humanity

Lindquist wishes more people saw her side. She doesn’t think there’s a good middle-ground solution on gun laws or a policy fix that can please everybody. She wants the opposite of what most shooting victims want, and that’s not going to change.

But she says she tries to do her work with empathy. She wishes everyone would simply be nice to each other.

“Even the people that disagree with me with everything that they have, they’re still a human being. And something has happened in their life … that makes them think the way they do,” she said.

During the March For Our Lives — the March 2018 gun-control demonstration organized by Parkland survivors — Lindquist was interviewed on CNN’s The Van Jones Show during his segment with Parkland students. Backstage, she saw Samantha Fuentes, a teenager who had been shot in both legs during the Florida shooting, but didn’t approach her, she said.

“My gun serves as an equalizer. It doesn’t negate his power, but it brings mine up to his level and I have a fighting chance.”
Savannah Lindquist

Lindquist said Fuentes walked up to her and held out both hands, palms up, inviting Lindquist to take them. She did.

“I know you think we have nothing in common,” she said Fuentes told her. Lindquist’s heart sank. Then Fuentes smiled. “But we have matching tattoos.”

She flipped Lindquist’s hand to expose the semicolon tattooed on her wrist, a mental health awareness symbol. “Before I could say anything, she bear-hugged me,” Lindquist said. (A representative for Fuentes did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It was one of those moments when you realize we’re all fighting the same battles,” Lindquist said this month as she drove the streets of her hometown. “I still think of her every single day, and I think about not only what she went through, but how she reminded me of my own humanity.”

Lindquist carries her gun to the range.
DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer
Lindquist carries her gun to the range.

‘I can swear’

Nearly a year later, Lindquist found herself standing in a Capitol Hill hearing room, raising her right hand before members of Congress. She’d been surprised to get an invitation from the committee’s ranking Republican to tell her story.

After 2018’s contentious Supreme Court confirmation hearings — when some lawmakers attacked Christine Blasey Ford, who accused now-Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault — Lindquist “internalized” the criticism: She worried about how she couldn’t prove her rape allegation, how she’d told half-truths at first when people asked her what was wrong, and how long she’d waited to tell the complete story.

She began to speak the words — to swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help her God. As she stood there, she was hit with a thought: This may be the closest she would ever get to showing that her story was true.

“It was just really validating, … being able to say: This happened and I can’t prove it to you, but I can swear to you that I’m not a liar,” she said.

Lindquist hopes to graduate from Old Dominion in December, but she has a hard time thinking about the future. She knows everything can fall apart in the blink of an eye.

For now, she’s continuing with her advocacy. She’s still writing, will be on a livestream talk about minority gun ownership this month, and was invited to an April rally in Washington state.

When she talks about what she wants people to take from her story, it’s that they’re not alone. She wants someone keeping an assault a secret to feel empowered to find the support they need. She wants someone in pain to find strength to share their story — maybe even with her, as two women have done since she first spoke out.

“Every time that that happens, it makes me sort of feel like — not that everything happens for a reason,” Lindquist said, “but that there’s a silver lining.”