Research presented by two academics in Cape Town on Tuesday, suggests that South Africa’s Firearm Controls Act has succeeded in bringing down lives lost to gun violence since 2000. The suggestion of further gun reform, however, continues to meet with vehement opposition from pro-gun lobbyists. By REBECCA DAVIS.
Until 2003, firearms were the leading cause of homicide in South Africa. Over the last five years, however, more people have died as a result of stab wounds, than from gunshots. The Freedom Front Plus (FF+) put out a recent statement containing this information, and suggested that it proved that legal firearm owners were “unreasonably and unnecessarily targeted”. That is one way of reading it. The other, as was made clear at a seminar in Cape Town, on Tuesday, is that the promulgation of South Africa’s Firearms Control Act (FCA), in 2000, may have helped to save lives.
This was the research question that Dr Richard Matzopoulos, an epidemiologist at the University of Cape Town’s public health unit, set out to investigate. What was behind the decrease in firearm homicide rates, between 2001 and 2005 in particular? Could this drop be attributable to stricter gun control?
The FCA, said Matzopoulos, was “unambiguous in its intent to reduce the number of firearms in circulation, particularly those in civilian hands”. It introduced provisions for regulating firearm types, the purposes firearms would be used for, and the profile of the gun-owner. Background checks on owners, and more rigorous licensing conditions, were part of the law’s phased implementation, together with an amnesty on handing, in both legal and illegal firearms.
Matzopoulous’s research, published in the prestigious and peer-reviewed American Journal of Public Health, examined data from death registers, autopsies, and police, and laboratory reports, in order to determine causes of death between 2001 and 2005. He found that there was a “significant year-on-year decline in firearm homicide rates from 2002”.
While there was also a decline in non-firearm homicides over this period, it was much more moderate and non-consistent. Even allowing for statistical variables, there was a year-on-year decline in firearm homicides of 13.6% per annum. Over the same period, the year-on-year decline in non-firearm homicides was only 2.4%. If firearm homicides had declined at the same rate as non-firearm homicides, Matzopoulos said, an additional 4,585 people would have died as a result of gun injuries during the period studied. While this statistical trend seems unambiguous, it fails to answer the question of whether it was the FCA that caused the decline.
“Inferring causality relies on a range of causal criteria being satisfied,” Matzopoulos said. This includes aspects like whether the time-period overlapped, and whether it is true to say that there were fewer guns in circulation, over the period studied. Here, Matzopoulos cited government figures showing that there was a 14% decrease in civilian gun ownership between 1998 and 2011; a 35% decrease in guns stolen over the study period, and a massive increase in the number of guns recovered by police over this period. Matzopoulos also pointed out that another South African report ascribes the decrease in women killed by guns, between 1999 and 2009, to the effect of the FCA.
This study was led by Professor Naeemah Abrahams, deputy director of the Gender and Health Research Unit at the SA Medical Research Council, who was also on hand to explain her research. Abrahams looked specifically at female homicide data in two years, 1999 and 2009. She found that 685 fewer women were killed by guns in 2009 than in 1999. “The FCA has been effective in decreasing gender-based violence,” Abrahams said.
Matzopoulos concluded: “In the absence of any other plausible explanation or identified confounding factors, the study suggests that stricter gun control through the FCA accounted for a significant decrease in homicide overall, and firearm homicide in particular, during the study period”.
During the presentations, gun lobbyists present expressed visible discomfort in both body language and words: “Absolute bunkum!” one cried when Matzopoulos finished.
“Claims are being thrust forward as fact when they are in fact fiction!” charged Paul Oxley, of Gun Owners South Africa. Oxley went on to accuse the researchers, both of whose work has been published in peer-reviewed journals, of “academic fraud”. The crux of Oxley’s disagreement with the research, seemed to be that the FCA had a phased implementation which has taken years to roll out – with some of its provisions still not even in place. It was, therefore, not accurate to ascribe the FCA as having caused a decline in gun homicide from 2001, when it was only promulgated in 2000.
Matzopoulos pointed out that different measures were enacted at different times, within his study period of 2001 to 2005. Furthermore, an article published in The Star on 1 November 2003, seen by the Daily Maverick, quotes another prominent gun lobbyist – Martin Hood, of the Security Industry Alliance – as complaining that “his clients have noted a significant drop in the amount of firearms licenses being approved”.
The same article states that: “Gun shops in Johannesburg have noted that about 70% of firearm license applications by their clients have been refused since June ”.
This clearly shows that the FCA’s licensing provisions were already well in effect by mid-2003, despite gun lobbyists’ claims, now, that its measures took so long to roll out that Matzopoulos’s study cannot be accurate.
Oxley stuck to his guns, so to speak. “In actual fact the FCA has cost us several thousand lives,” he claimed, suggesting that the information presented had been “neatly cherry-picked”.
Gun Free South Africa’s Alan Storey responded: “Merely stating that this is verging on academic fraud is without any substantive evidence, and we’ll run with the evidence.” Oxley called him a “disgrace” in response.
For Matzopoulos and Abrahams, however, the evidence is clear. What needs to happen next, Matzopoulos suggested, is that the FCA’s restrictions and adherence need to be greatly tightened. Gun lobbyists are unlikely to take that suggestion lying down. DM
Photo: Firearms confiscated by the South African Police Service are displayed during the launch of a three-month gun amnesty in Pretoria, South Africa 11 January 2010. EPA/STR
- National Firearms Summit: The battle over SA’s guns rages on, on Daily Maverick