MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED
Should 3% of the population call the (gun)shots?
Just under 1.8 million people — 3% of our population of 58.4 million — are licensed firearm owners. Eighty-one percent are male, of whom 64% are older than 50. We don’t know how many violent criminals there are with illegal guns, but even if they comprised twice the number of legal owners, that would still leave a massive majority of 91% of South Africans who live without firearms. The ‘outrage’ therefore is about defending what 3% of South Africans claim to be their ‘rights’. But gun ownership is not a constitutional right.
Professor Peter Storey is a former head of the Methodist Church of Southern Africa. He founded Gun Free South Africa and was its first chairperson.
The outrage expressed by gun owners around the Draft Firearms Control Amendment Bill — especially the clause eliminating self-defence as a valid reason for firearm ownership — needs to be interrogated. Do licensed gun owners in South Africa have a case?
First, some perspective: Stellenbosch University criminologist and expert on crime and violence Dr Guy Lamb says “a very small minority of South Africans want to own a firearm and apply for a licence, so the conversation and noise about this is made by certain lobby groups, it is not made by all South Africans”. (See the interview here)
Here is some of that “noise:” the SA Gunowners’ Association (SAGA) declares the new bill “out of touch with reality.” The DA has joined gun owners, saying it threatens “the last line of defence for millions of law-abiding citizens”. Gun Owners SA (GOSA) uses more lurid language, calling it the “peak of absolute idiocy” with “the stench of long-dead thinking and outmoded paternalism”.
Who do they represent?
According to Lamb just under 1.8 million people — or 3% of our population of 58.4 million — are licensed firearm owners. Eighty-one percent of them are male and 64% of those males are older than 50. We don’t know how many violent criminals there are with illegal guns, but even if they comprised twice the number of legal owners (which is unlikely), that would still leave a massive majority of 91% of South Africans who live without firearms. The “outrage” therefore is about defending what 3% of South Africans claim to be their rights.
If such rights existed, we would be required to honour them regardless of how few were affected, but they don’t exist. In 1996, SAGA pushed hard to have a US Second Amendment-type “right to bear arms” included in South Africa’s new Constitution — and failed. Subsequently, in 2018, the Constitutional Court emphasised that gun ownership is a “privilege, not a right”.
However, where gun lobbyists — and all South Africans — do have a right to outrage is in the horrendous levels of violent crime in our country and the abysmal failure of the SAPS to hold back the tide. It is common cause that very few of us feel safe, least of all those living in townships and informal settlements who experience by far the worst of the shocking violence.
Gun lobbyists are not alone in demanding a top-to-bottom overhaul of a corrupt and ineffective SAPS.
What is puzzling though is an apparent inability to hold two thoughts at one time. Gideon Joubert of GOSA says the focus should “not be on eradicating guns, but rather on fixing our failing police service”, but surely we could work on both at once, especially if reducing the number of guns in civilian hands helped to reduce leakage of firearms into criminal hands… and it would.
One of the frightening facts about police inefficiency/corruption is that since 2000, 30,543 guns have been stolen or lost by SAPS, almost certainly to land up in the hands of violent criminals. If you think that’s shocking, however, consider that in the same 21 years, licensed civilian gun owners contributed an unbelievable 220,440 firearms in the same manner.
The 3% of our population demanding to hang on to their guns clearly have a poor record of doing so. To the delight of our criminal underworld, their guns have been lost or stolen at a rate of 34 each day. Closing this steady flow of firearms to criminals is surely a crucial part of reducing gun crimes.
Another “one-thought” problem lies with the gun enthusiasts’ mantra, usually offered with the authority of holy writ, that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This notion conferring innocent neutrality upon a firearm by de-linking it from its user’s action is dishonest. Of course, the shooter becomes a killer the moment the trigger is pulled, but the gun doesn’t get off so easily: in fact, of the two, only the gun was designed for the job. By taking a life, the shooter is going against everything it means to be human; the gun, however, is doing exactly what it was designed to do: kill people. A more honest mantra would be: “No one’s ever been shot by a person without a gun.”
The most insistent claim made by gun lobbyists is that guns are “effective for self-defence” and if this could be proven it would surely count in their favour. We are often told that this or that gun owner — under attack or house invasion — saved him/herself from harm by using a firearm to either threaten, wound or kill the criminal/s. The problem with these claims is that no statistical evidence is forthcoming — no research giving numbers or rates. They remain anecdotes, not evidence, the exception, not the rule. Given that such claims would strengthen the argument for gun ownership, the question must be asked: why has the evidence not been carefully collated and published? Is it because such incidents of “successful” self-defence with firearms are too few to make a case?
However, research disproving this claim does exist: a South African study shows you are four times more likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence when attacked, and four times more likely to be shot at if you do use it in self-defence.
International studies not only support this finding but show that you are four to five times more likely to be shot (not just shot at) if you have a gun in your possession when attacked, compared with someone not carrying a firearm.
I can personally vouch for this: in 1990 a 9mm pistol was pressed into my right ear while I was trying to drive through the barricaded streets of Soweto, and I was told “we will kill you.” I have no doubt at all that if either my son Alan or I had reached for anything — never mind a gun — anywhere in the car, we would not be here today.
Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) works from the reasonable premise that fewer guns mean fewer dead people, making for a safer society. It constantly tests this thesis against available evidence about the role of guns in South Africa and abroad and it lets the data — not emotions — do its talking. Over its 27 years of careful work and advocacy, it has earned the respect of the government, of the United Nations and of other international bodies studying firearm legislation and gun violence. GFSA has also become a trusted voice of the vast unarmed majority in our land.
This amendment bill prioritises the safety of South Africa’s 58.4 million residents because its measures — including the removal of “self-defence” as a valid reason to own a gun — will reduce the availability of guns. GFSA’s welcoming of that clause is based on evidence that placing limits on who can own guns, what guns can be owned and for what purpose, reduces the number of guns in our society. Fewer guns mean fewer dead people. DM/MC
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