South Africa


Research suggests reduced gun ownership will save more women’s lives in South Africa

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)

Tighter gun control would bolster the government’s commitment to fighting gender-based violence and reducing femicide. 

First published by ISS Today

Jody van der Heyde, Research Intern, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.

Fifty-eight per cent of South Africa’s domestic violence murder victims from April to June 2020 were women, according to national police statistics. Sixty-seven per cent of these women were killed by a current or ex-intimate partner. In such cases, femicide is the final act in a pattern of chronic and escalating abuse. South Africa’s rate of femicide has been estimated at six times higher than the global average.

Research has consistently shown that having access to a firearm is a major risk factor in intimate femicide. In her book Femicide in South Africa, Nechama Brodie indicates that more than 80% of femicide victims attacked by their partner were “killed by a firearm injury, mostly from a single gunshot to the head or face … In three-quarters of these cases, the perpetrator is a legal firearm owner using a licensed weapon.”

This is not unique to South Africa — World Health Organization recommendations on how to tackle femicide emphasise strengthening gun laws and reducing gun ownership. This is based on research that has consistently shown that increased ownership of firearms is generally associated with an increase in homicide.

Results from a study assessing the impact of the Firearms Control Act on firearm homicide in five of South Africa’s largest cites indicate that the implementation of the law saved the lives of 4,585 people between 2001 and 2005. This is why the government’s current review of the act is important, as it seeks to further restrict public ownership of guns. Such a step can add to the ongoing measures to address gender-based violence in the country. 

Last year the government adopted the Gender-Based Violence and Femicide National Strategic Plan and created a Femicide Watch website. This shows a renewed commitment to addressing what has been dubbed an ‘epidemic’ and a ‘national crisis.’ But while the plan is essential and the website provides useful resources to the public, it isn’t enough to stop femicide and gender-based violence — or even reduce it significantly. 

Femicide is predictable because it usually follows prior incidents of abuse, the WHO research shows. Moreover, it indicates that most perpetrators are or were intimate male partners. A lot is known about patterns of violence in intimate relationships and their associated predictive factors. We know that if not tackled early, violence and abuse tend to escalate over time, and with that, the risks of femicide. 

Examples of escalating abuse include stalking, controlling behaviour, and threatening to harm a child or pet. Although not all abusive relationships end in the murder of a woman, many do. Stricter gun control is a critical preventive strategy for intimate femicide and violence against women more generally. Fewer guns mean fewer femicides.

However, not everyone supports more gun control in South Africa. Since the act was gazetted for comments in May, over 100,000 submissions have been received, and debates between the pro- and anti-gun lobbies have been reignited. This shows that gun control is a contentious issue in the country.

One of the unsupported assertions from the pro-firearm lobby has been that removing firearms for self-defence would place women at risk of gender-based violence. However, the facts show a very different picture. 

First, of all registered firearm owners in South Africa, only 19% are women. This makes it essential to hear whether the majority of the country’s women (who don’t own guns) support firearm ownership. Second, there is no evidence that having a firearm increases the owner’s safety. In fact, when it comes to femicide, there is plenty of evidence that the presence of a gun is a real risk factor. 

A common counter-argument can be anticipated: that stricter gun control alone isn’t enough to eliminate femicide since it could still be committed with other weapons. That is true. However, as Brodie reminds us, fewer guns in the hands of potential perpetrators would prevent a great number of deaths. And other kinds of weapons are not as lethal as guns. 

It is also vital that police take reports of domestic and intimate partner violence seriously. They need to be trained to recognise and intervene in cases of potential femicide by identifying risk factors for perpetration or when women make multiple reports of being re-victimised. 

Reducing gender-based violence and femicide requires the attention of all South Africans, including government, civil society and the business sector. Any approaches should however be linked to controlling firearm access by amending the Firearms Control Act. This will save lives. DM

Jody van der Heyde, Research Intern, Justice and Violence Prevention, ISS Pretoria.

This article is funded by the Hanns Seidel Foundation. 


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All Comments 8

  • When one uses a single lens to interrogate a complex issue, the answers seem so simple and comfortable. Just by way 9f example, South Africa’s farmers, and some of the victims of the recent looting / insurrection may see all of this very differently

  • I guess the maths needs a little help too.
    A. Fifty-eight per cent of South Africa’s domestic violence murder victims from April to June 2020 were women;
    B. Sixty-seven per cent of these women were killed by a current or ex-intimate partner
    C. … more than 80% of femicide victims attacked by their partner were “killed by a firearm injury, mostly from a single gunshot to the head or face; and
    D. …In three-quarters of these cases, the perpetrator is a legal firearm owner using a licensed weapon.
    A x B x C x D = 58% x 67% x 80% x 75% = 23,3% which means 23.3% of people killed in domestic violence incidents were women who were shot by their partners who were licensed firearm holders.

  • Myopic, unscientific research. A truly stupid conclusion by whomsoevet conducted that ‘research’.
    If civilians are disarmed, the numbers of violent home invasions will increase; person to robberies will increase; hijackings will increase; and therefore the total number of victim deaths will soar, because perpetrators know that their victims are unarmed.

    Truly stupid.

  • Clearly GBV & femicide IS a major problem – but I agree with other commentators that this is an overly simplistic take on firearm ownership, with some seriously skewed analysis of the numbers involved
    The crime side of the equation cannot be ignored. Use of a firearm to defend one’s loved ones against rampant violent crime is an obvious necessity – in the situation where police are understaffed, and largely incompetent (and some members of SAPS happily selling or renting out firearms to criminals, or enabling their criminal endeavours.)

  • I agree that GBV is a huge problem in this country but simply using statistics to justify an absurd conclusion is just plain lazy. GBV is a cultural problem as well as a criminal problem, and one that is only exacerbated by the disgracefully poor levels of policing in the this country. And we know exactly why that is and with whom that particular buck stops – a certain character who likes his hats. If you’re not confident enough to take on the flak for criticising the cultural aspect (a much more difficult minefield to navigate), then at least start at the top of the police food-chain and get the cops to do their jobs.

    A curious omission from this article is identifying any unrelated consequences of the proposal. Funny how the calls for radical change always seem to miss that…

    But I digress. Perhaps a more rational approach is to include any data on how many armed robberies or other crimes were foiled by gun owners. All of these cases one could presume a significant percentage would instead have been successful crimes and added to the already mortifyingly embarrassing statistics we have thanks to the clowns we call politicians. I doubt this would turn out to be a worthwhile trade-off. Which leads me to suspect the intention behind this article is not the safety and security of the citizenry but rather just another enthusiastic zealot blindly trying to impose a foolish ideology where it doesn’t belong.

  • GBV is a serious problem. Banning legal gun ownership is not the solution.

    Improved policing, police management, forensics capabilities, detective work with increased convictions is what is needed as deterrent.

    Gun ownership in countries like Switzerland, (higher ratios of gun ownership than the US) show that it’s not guns that are the problem.

  • So what you are saying men are incapable of being changed,instead of research on how to learn how to solve problems between them and their partner ,you go for the easy option ,if useless goverments and politicians and some researches thought out the box they would make non violent problem solving a school subject, just like making driving classes a school subject ,so when they come out of school ,they have wider variety of job choices because they got a valid driver’s license.Researches , psychologists ,social workers can start with a plan to create this curriculum. Voila ,you can leave the guns in men and women’s possession ,because they have been educated to solve problems without violence.Its like this farce of 16 days of activism against abuse of women.The advertising agencies make money etc.What about the other349 days? You can’t seem to think out the box ,you can only research the status quo.Get real and look for solutions that are long lasting