Analysis: Where’s our debate on gun control?

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For over a year, we’ve been told by the media that the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp by Oscar Pistorius has “sparked a renewed debate about gun ownership in South Africa”. There’s actually very little sign of this happening in much meaningful way. We might as well get on with it, writes REBECCA DAVIS.

“Guns, ammo and shooting are as much a part of everyday life [in Pretoria] as a trip to the dentist,” an Australian journalist recently reported. It’s a narrative we’ve been hearing a lot of from our international colleagues lately. South Africa, the gun-mad land of fear, where citizens hole up with firearms to defend themselves against any threat.

It’s true for some. It’s clearly true for the Pistorius family, with Beeldreporting last year that Oscar’s father, three uncles and grandfathers own 55 firearms between them. It also seems to be true for Pistorius’s immediate social circle, if the likes of Darren Fresco and Justin Divaris are taken to be representative.

But it’s certainly not true for all. It’s not even true for anywhere close to the majority of South Africans. It’s difficult to know how many firearms are in circulation in this country because of the number of these which are illegal. International weapons-monitoring organisation GunPolicyestimates that there are about six million guns, or 12 per 100 people. Anti-gun lobby Gun Free SA says that as of August 2011, there were 1,8 million licensed civilian gun-owners in South Africa, or four gun-owners out of every 100.

The Firearms Control Act of 2000, which introduced a mandatory competency test for would-be gun-owners, is credited with lowering the number of firearms and associated homicides. The transition to democracy reportedly saw a wave of panic gun-buying: one of the experts who helped draft the Firearms Control Act told the Associated Press in February that one of the reasons why stringent new regulations had to be instituted was because of this wave.

Medical Research Council researchers suggested in 2013 that the decline in women killed by their intimate partners with guns – as opposed to those stabbed or bludgeoned – was due to the implementation of the act. As a result of factors like these, the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction in London recently cited South Africa as a good example of successful firearm reform.

Predictably, not everyone was happy with the introduction of the Firearms Control Act. A group calling themselves Gun Owners of South Africa(GOSA) still maintains on their website that the act and its supporting regulations are a “gross infringement on human and constitutional rights”. GOSA’s stated mandate is to affirm “the rights of all people within South Africa to own and bear arms”. But that’s a unilateral affirmation. The Constitution of South Africa does not enshrine the right of South Africans to bear arms, unlike the United States Constitution.

Few issues cause hackles to be raised as much as that of gun control. Some American commentators even suggested that one of the reasons why British talk-show host Piers Morgan failed to win over the States was due to his outspoken stance on the matter. What the events of the Pistorius trial thus far are suggesting, however, is that no matter how stringent the criteria for gun ownership, there is no fail-safe way to ensure that guns are in the right hands.

Of course, not all South African gun owners should be tarred with the same brush. Many are undoubtedly responsible and cautious with their weapons (though the number of lost guns every year is something of an indictment). But the evidence we’ve heard in the Pistorius trial thus far suggests that Pistorius and his friends are not among that cautious and responsible number. We know that they bring loaded guns to family-friendly restaurants in daylight and pass them around to admire. They may also fire gunshots in the air out of cars. If Darren Fresco’s testimony is to be believed, they drive with their guns between their legs.

We know that when challenged by police officers about the way they handle their guns, they allegedly respond: “You can’t just touch another man’s gun”, a highly revealing statement about the intersection of masculinity and gun-ownership. We know that they sleep with their guns next to their beds, rather than in a safe, as is advised.

We know too that Pistorius chose to use Black Talon ammunition, which Time Magazine described thusly in December 1993: “Perhaps a prayer can stop a Black Talon. But a pocketbook probably will not. The bullet is designed to unsheathe its claws once inside the victim’s body and tear it to pieces.”

It has been alleged that much of the concern over this type of ammunition has been overhyped. “Time and again ballistics reports have shown them to be no more damaging to human tissue than other hollow-nosed ammunition,” wrote Channel 4’s Alex Thomson, in partial defence of the bullets, in the wake of the Pistorius trial revelation.

Indeed, “firearm service provider” Sean Rens, who was handling Pistorius’s purchase of further weapons, told the court on Monday under cross-examination from the defence’s Barry Roux that Black Talon ammunition was actually “less lethal”.

In a blog, an American firearms instructor explains this case. “Each individual bullet does indeed create more damage than an individual roundnose bullet does,” she writes. “However, because each individual shot does more damage, hollow points are the safest option for use in self defence.” It’s “safer” in the sense that hollow point bullets are less likely to go through the attacker and hit someone else, because of the bullet’s mushrooming action inside the body – which is why it’s often used in international law enforcement. It’s also “safer” in the sense that the damage is so intense that you’re likely to have to shoot fewer times.

The same Australian journalist who opined that gun-ownership was a normal part of Pretoria life visited the Pro Shot gun shop and shooting range in the Arcadia Centre, Pretoria, where proprietor Johan Gerber saidPistorius would come to shoot. When the journalist asked Gerber why, in his experience, anyone would buy hollow-nosed ammunition, he replied: “To be more aggressive”.

It seems that Pistorius had developed a taste for increasingly more potent weaponry. One of the guns that he had almost completed purchasing before his order was cancelled last year was the Smith & Wesson Model 500. The company which makes it calls it “the most powerful production revolver in the world today”, ideally suited to “deliver maximum power for serious handgun hunters”. Or, as one fan put it: “Actually shooting it might break your fucking wrist, but you can rest assured that whoever or whatever you hit is going to go down like a sack of lead bricks dropped in a swimming pool filled with Jell-O”.

Yet we also know from Monday’s testimony that Pistorius was fully au fait with the chapter and verse of responsible gun ownership required to secure himself a license. Current South African legislation permits you to own one gun for self-defence and up to four firearms for occasional hunting or sports shooting purposes. In the application for a license to possess a firearm, you have to motivate why you need one – although there’s a mere three lines to do so.

Beeld reported in February last year that Pistorius’s application for a gun license was initially rejected, but Pistorius launched a successful appeal. A South African gun website suggests that the most common reasons why license applications are declined include: “You failed to provide any substance or adequate reasons to proof [sic] that a need exists to possess the particular firearm” and “Serious lack of motivation in that you provided ‘SELF DEFENCE’ as motivation”.

Pistorius got his license in the end, and the testimony of Sean Rens revealed the athlete’s technical familiarity with what constituted unlawful shootings. (As one journalist wryly put it: “He passed the theory, failed the practical”.) Rens testified that Pistorius performed well in his firearms assessment test, writing at one point that it was essential to “know your target and what lies beyond it”.

Whether you buy Pistorius’ intruder story or not, all his knowledge about responsible firearm use seems to have flown out the window on the morning of 14 February. “The possibility that Pistorius intentionally shot and killed Steenkamp brings to mind two of the most prominent pro-gun myths,” wrote liberal website Mother Jones: “Namely, that keeping a gun at home makes you and your loved ones safer, and that guns make women safer.”

There is not a lot of South Africa-specific evidence on whether gun ownership makes you safer, but Africa Check last year cited researchundertaken by the Institute of Security Studies between 2006 and 2009 which showed that armed gangs often targeted homes where owners were believed to have guns in their possession, in order to steal them. (The same Africa Check report, incidentally, drew on Medical Research Council statistics which show that 88% of the victims of firearm homicides are black.)

Gun Free South Africa says that in South Africa you are four times as likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self defence, based on research undertaken in 2000 and 2009.

In the States, where there’s a lot more research available and the debate is a lot more heated, there’s some suggestion that defensive gun-ownership may be effective. An Obama-commissioned report by the Centre for Disease Control in the States, released last June, proposed that in the US, “defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals”. It also suggested that “studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns…have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies”. The study acknowledged, however, that these figures were controversial.

Anti-gun groups often cite gun-related suicides as well as homicides and accidents, however, as reason enough not to keep a gun in the home. Gunsaccount for 14% of suicides in South Africa – far less than hanging. But gun suicide attempts also have a far higher fatality rate than other methods, at 85%. In the US, Gun Free SA suggests, 90% of those who attempt suicide and survive do not go on to die of suicide later.

In a country with South Africa’s high rates of violent crime, groups like Gun Free SA are always going to have their work cut out to make a case for further restricting who gets to own a gun. But what the revelations of the Pistorius trial provides is certainly a time and motivation for a measured discussion about South African gun ownership, in a more substantial form than we’ve seen thus far. 

By Rebecca Davis

Source: Daily Maverick

Photo: A 9mm pistol and ammunition sits ready for the next customer at the DVC Indoor Shooting Centre in Port Coquitlam, British Columbia March 22, 2013. REUTERS/Andy Clark.

Rebecca Davis studied at Rhodes University and Oxford before working in lexicography at the Oxford English Dictionary. After deciding she’d rather make up words than define them, she returned to South Africa in 2011 to write for the Daily Maverick, which has been a magnificilious decision.