MAVERICK CITIZEN OP-ED

Should 3% of the population call the (gun)shots?

By Peter Storey 7 July 2021

The Draft Firearms Control 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. (Photo: Gallo Images / The Times / Moeletsi Mabe)

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.

Peter Storey

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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All Comments 18

  • About 5 to 10 percent of our population sexual orientation is not straight; protected by the Constitution.
    They still get gunned down.

    Gun ownership not protected right under Constitution and owners don’t want to get gunned down.

    Perhaps LGBT+ should be armed to ward of homophobic terror.
    Their Constitutional rights means zip.

  • In so many other matters in our free and open society we emphasize that it is what people feel that matters, not only what reality dictates.

    If John or Mary feels safer with a pistol on their lap on that dark section of road they travel each night, then how do we tell them they don’t have the right to feel safer?

    Firearms in safes are probably useless. A firearm on your lap when in risky place is probably a life saver and certainly the minimum that person a entitled to. What is their alternative? Feel scared every night on the way home? I’d rather they feel safe even if it is all based on belief rather than fact.

    No, I don’t own a firearm.

  • 28% of Swiss households own firearms!!! Do they run around killing each other? Put that in your rootsie shootsie pipe and smoke it. I have responsibly owned a variety of firearms for over 30 years. Yes I have also been jacked at gunpoint by tik crazed youths, its hectic and the psychological trauma goes on for years – its the society we live in. Fortunately I have never had to draw a weapon in self defence but really, do you think removing a handful of legal firearms is going to change anything? I can buy any gun I want to on the dark web or on the street, so can any criminal. Disarming the public is not going to change a thing. The cops are selling guns for goodness sake.

  • BTW Mr Storey, dont come hide behind me when the pawpaw really hits the fan. Im sure your can of pepper spray and your UK passport/visa will get you out of here in time. This is Africa in case you have not realized that. Things don’t work that way hereabouts.

  • Professor Storey, you are entitled to your view. It is your choice to lawfully posses a firearm in South Africa – or not. There is much in your article with which I take issue as a matter of fact – certain of the statistics you quote are inaccurate and have been properly disproved.

    Your involvement with Gun Free South Africa since the 1990’s is well documented and it would have been more honest to introduce yourself to readers as a founder-member of GFSA. You present your view as a fait accompli, neatly sidestepping admission of the scourge of violent crime that citizens face on a daily basis.

    It appears that you are unaware of a document – colloquially referred to as the ‘Wits Report’, which has been concealed until very recently, from everyone in SA – except GFSA – for about 6 years. It would seem that there was good reason for concealing the report because the facts and conclusions presented do not support the ideological narrative of disarmament proposed by GFSA and the government.

    Researchers in various organisations are interrogating this document against other publications and even the Firearms Amendment Bill and the days of GFSA influencing our policy-makers with untruthful data are nearing an end.

    Safe Citizen doesn’t hold the extreme view that everyone in SA ought to be armed. Nor do we support the extreme view that everyone in SA should be disarmed. Law abiding and competent citizens do have the right to choose to apply for a licence to possess a firearm.

  • What your statistics & flawed reasoning conveniently ignore, is that the danger to society does not come from licenced gun owners. It comes from criminals who in most cases buy their guns from corrupt police or steal these from state facilities.

    Unless & until the State is able to effectively tackle this unacceptable situation & totally remove all illegal guns, no one has the right to deny law abiding citizens the right to defend themselves against the rampant, ruthless crime that’s being inflicted upon them & their families on a daily basis.

  • Statistics have the habit of being very pliable. It is moulded to shape by the person using it. The anti-gun arguments in this article are just that.
    Most South Africans have horrific experience involving illegal guns. The ones I know would have had a better outcome if the defender/s would have been armed.
    I don’t own a gun but see the necessity of having one.

  • “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.”

    “people keep illegally stealing X therefore we should remove X therefore it wont be stolen” is silly logic.

    Our processes for obtaining, carrying, storing and having firearms are really stringent. It becomes harder and harder to keep firearms already. Somehow increasing the processes required to have firearms hasn’t affected criminality. People have less guns in general but criminality isn’t affected.

    • Well said. The root of the problem is illegal unlicensed guns in the hands of criminals, & not legally owned licensed firearms.

      Disarming law abiding citizens will only further embolden criminals, in the knowledge that they have the upper hand & a total monopoly on guns.

  • What is the percentage of citizens who want to restrict gun ownership – about 0.025%at a guess. Why should this vocal minority be permitted to dictate to the rest of the population, some of whom may in future decide they require a firearm for self protection. Its ironic that people like Storey harp on about firearms in private ownership as the State (SAPS) that is supposed to protect its citizens is exposed on a daily basis as ineffectual and criminal.

  • Dear Sir

    Criminals will source as many firearms as they want in South Africa, even if private individuals are prevented from owning them for self defense purposes.

    We live in Africa and South Africa specifically. Our history is one of armed struggle, conflict and violence. Do you honestly think that all Arms caches have been disclosed / discovered by the authorities since the bearth of the Rainbow Nation?

    We have Mozambique and Zimbabwe as neighbors. Automatic military weapons are awash in both of these countries and as we have seen our borders are worthless. You can simply walk in and out of these countries at will. You can buy a fully automatic AK47 for less than USD100 in these countries. A legal semi automatic AK47 costs around USD650 in SA and the industry employs many thousands of South Africans and contributes billions to economy.

    The fact that 3 percent of the population have firearms is the reason that crime in this country is NOT completely out of control. The only thing that stops a bad man with a gun, is a GOOD man with a gun.

    SAPS has admitted that they have failed in their mandate to keep us safe. We need to make access to firearms EASIER and get at least 20 percent of our population trained and legally armed and give our people (especially our woman and children) a fighting chance against these ruthless thugs that slaughter unarmed citizens at will.

    These a reason why we had a cold war and not a 3rd World War. Let’s learn from that.

  • One of the great ironies of the gun control debate is that everyone who calls for gun control still wants a man with a gun protecting him.

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