Opinionista Rebecca Peters 15 September 2014

Reeva’s real killer: It started with the gun

Whether or not Oscar Pistorius intended to kill an intruder or Reeva Steenkamp; whatever his state of mind was or whether or not he had an anxiety disorder, one indisputable fact remains: Reeva Steenkamp would still be alive today if Oscar Pistorius had not had a gun.

While legal experts and the public attempt to make sense of the Oscar Pistorius trial verdict, the killing of Reeva Steenkamp has drawn attention to another type of evidence – the research evidence on women as victims of homicide.

Every eight hours in South Africa, a woman is killed by her husband or boyfriend.  There, as in most countries, the home is the most dangerous place for a woman. That danger escalates sharply when a gun is added in to the mix. International research shows that having a gun in the house makes you twice as likely to be murdered – or three times as likely, if you’re a woman.

There are so many awful aspects of the Reeva Steenkamp tragedy. One of them is that her killer had the gun for the purpose of self-defence. To defend himself and presumably Reeva from outsiders who might come over the threshold and threaten the sanctuary of their home. Research shows you are four times more likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence. In fact over 12,000 guns are stolen every year from South African homes – more than 30 guns a day going over the threshold in the opposite direction, creating further risk in neighbourhoods and the country as a whole.

We know that reducing access to guns saves women’s lives. One every eight hours means three women are killed by their partners every day, but it was even worse – four per day – before South Africa strengthened its gun law. The law was changed in 2000 and implemented from 2004. Researchers credit the gun law for reducing murders of women. In other words, men who attack their partners but who do not have a gun are less likely to leave them dead. Likewise for men who act negligently or mistakenly in “self-defence”. If Reeva Steenkamp’s partner had not had a gun, chances are she would be alive today.

Guns are simply physically more deadly than other common means of interpersonal violence – three times as likely to kill the victim than an attack with a knife. For a given investment of energy and time (one instant, one finger-pull), they do more damage to human bodies. That is why they are favoured by professional criminals, and frequently by ordinary men prone to aggression, impulsivity, recklessness, “vulnerability” or fear.

For Reeva Steenkamp, cowering behind the bathroom door in those early hours of Valentine’s Day 2013, the outcome was determined by the presence of a gun. Whether the man who fired four shots through the door was acting reasonably or unreasonably in the circumstances, whether he was affected by instincts, emotions or perceptions – analysis after the fact cannot change the ugly reality. She was yet another woman killed at home, in the place where she was most entitled to feel safe, the trigger pulled by the man who should have been most committed to her wellbeing.

While the media focus returns to the life story and athletic career of her killer, we mourn Reeva Steenkamp and the many thousands of women whose lives are similarly, brutally cut short around the world each year.  Along with mourning, we must also consider the broader evidence for prevention. That means recognising the lethal danger for women posed by guns in the home. DM

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