Opinionista Vanessa Farr 19 November 2014

Staring down the barrel of a gun

South Africa has, when it comes to gun violence, gone too far already. We are traumatised, anxious, in the process of destroying ourselves. It’s only getting worse. It is high time we turned the tide.

When a grieving Dr Danny Jordaan, the head of the SA Football Association, asked this week “Isn’t it high time we introduce the Senzo Meyiwa gun law?” his focus was on illegal guns, which are generally believed to be behind gun crime in South Africa. The senseless murder of Senzo Meyiwa, a talented and much-loved young man, comes shortly after the divisive and disturbing trial of Oscar Pistorius for shooting Reeva Steenkamp, and in the midst of the trial of Shrien Dewani for allegedly orchestrating that his wife Anni be shot to death in an apparently botched hijacking. Because of guns, one sporting hero is dead, another disgraced and imprisoned; and South Africa now has a reputation as a holiday destination for those who wish to commit murder by proxy.

While the circumstances of each of these murders are different, the commonalities are striking: all involves a handgun held by a civilian. Whether the gun was legal or illegal has no influence on its deadliness.

Many claim that gun ownership in South Africa is a direct result of an overall climate of anxiety from living in a highly insecure country. A key argument of the pro-gun lobby has been that ordinary, law-abiding people need a licensed weapon to protect them from the violence we live in. Yet in reality, civilians lose eight times more guns than police officers, in part because domestic weapons are a top item for theft in a home invasion. The element of surprise in an armed robbery rarely gives a gun owner time to reach for the weapon bought as protection. Statistics tell us that since 1994 an average of almost 50 guns are reported lost or stolen every day from licensed guns owners. In other words, a significant number of “illegal” guns flow from the legal trade, helping criminals to defeat justice rather than enabling law-abiding citizens to keep crime at bay.

We have also, as a nation, had to look closely at the fact that when a gun actually is taken up in fear, the consequences can be horrific. We watched, baffled and disbelieving, as Oscar Pistorius built his entire defence around an argument he learned from the gun lobby, as he steadfastly claimed that he had accidentally discharged his legal handgun and killed Reeva Steenkamp because of a fear of intruders so powerful that he could not stop himself from firing four high-calibre rounds through a closed toilet door. We shook our heads in disbelief as he stuck tearfully to his line that he had shot from fear, and fear alone; as he argued that his terror drove him to forget all his training as a responsible gun owner; as he claimed his weapon had appeared to shoot itself because he was so petrified he could not control it.  What about his previous ‘adventures’ with guns, all of which seemed to show off a playboy lifestyle in which deadly weapons were a prop and a toy, an intrinsic part of flaunting the privileges of his superstar status – had these inured him to the lethality of the weapons in his control? And why had he been protected for so long from the consequences of rash gun use, including after he publicly discharged his weapon in a crowded restaurant?

What should South Africans be asking for now? We have the ground-breaking Firearms Control Act of 2000 that tightened up standards for gun ownership, which has played a key role in reducing violence and crime. But given the scale of gun-related death, injury and impairment, we still have a long way to go.

Part of our job is to get a better grip on and more effectively counteract the dominance of violent masculinity in South Africa and the ways in which the handling and discharging of weapons contributes to ideologies of men’s power and control, whether it is conferred by gang membership or through being part of a privileged elite that behaves as if it was above the law. It is no coincidence that the three murders currently appalling the nation have all been perpetrated by young men, who are grossly overrepresented in all forms of violence in South Africa as both perpetrators and victims.

Our 1996 National Crime Prevention Strategy is very clear in its recognition of the factors that make gun violence more likely. Reducing gun crime is a priority in the NCSPS, including through the review of gun laws and the introduction of much stronger efforts to prevent it from occurring in the first place. Yet in implementing the Strategy, government has shown itself to be disconnected. Unhelpfully, the official approach to crime has gradually moved away from prevention towards suppression. What this suggests is that, eighteen years later, we must review, strengthen and update the Strategy; in so doing we can draw from a number of other evidence-based strategies from around the world.

We need to focus our energy is on ensuring a system of effective and implemented laws and policies that stem the flow and misuse of handguns. This may require strengthening the Firearms Control Act, which requires a careful weighing of evidence we have about existing gaps.

Of equal urgency is the necessity to review the Victim Empowerment Programme (VEP) component and identify why it is not being fully implemented. The VEPs National Policy Guidelines recommend a renewed focus on promoting a victim-centred approach to criminal justice; on cross sector collaboration; and on monitoring, evaluating and reporting by implementing structures. The Guidelines also recognise that the current fragmented approach is a major stumbling block and point out the need to identify and clarify sector-specific roles and responsibilities, and tackle the deleterious effects of a lack of funding and vision.

Part of the problem is that the VEP is still not backed by the force of law; and it is in this direction that a strengthened gun control regime in Meyiwa’s name should move. Because the other side of this story is one we’re not discussing right now: what it is like to live with the consequences of gun violence. Each high-profile event starkly reminds us that we’re a nation of “secondary survivors” of our prolific firearms. Among us are those, like Kelly Khumalo, who witnessed the violence. Among us are Sam Meyiwa, June and Barry Steenkamp, Vinod and Nilom Hindocha and countless other family members grieving the loss of murdered loved ones or caring for survivors, often with abysmally poor resources. Among us, too, are the Pistoriuses, the relatives of Tsongo, Qwabe and Mngeni – family members now facing the pain, humiliation, and ostracism that loved ones can experience because of a relative’s action(s) or experiences. If we think of all these people, we realise that calculating the multiple health, social, and economic costs of the guns circulating in our society would be impossible. But what we all know is that as a nation, we are suffering from deep trauma and anxiety because firearms violence is so prevalent.

Legal or illegal, South Africa’s guns are destroying us. It’s time for this to stop. DM

Dr Vanessa Farr is the co-editor of two books: Back to the Roots: Security Sector Reform and Development (Münster: LIT, 2012) and Sexed Pistols: The Gendered Impacts of Small Arms and Light Weapons (UNU Press, 2009).


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