Opinionista Rebecca Peters 9 March 2015

Lessons learned for gun violence prevention

With the publication of the Firearms Control Amendment Act (2015), South Africa once more has an opportunity to strengthen its national gun law in this country’s efforts to address the high levels of gun violence, as all around the world, countries are toughening their gun laws.

Across Latin America and Africa, the two regions worst affected by gun violence, proposals are being developed by civil society and considered by parliaments. Those proposals contain measures like raising the minimum age for gun possession, limiting the number or type of guns a civilian can own, imposing conditions on storage and use (including banning concealed carry), strengthening licensing and registration systems, and increasing the capacity of police to apply and enforce the laws. These are accepted global norms regarded as the benchmark for regulating who has access to what weapons for which purpose: South Africa is a leader on the global stage in implementing such measures.

The evidence in support of strong gun control continues to mount, with a new study confirming that Australia’s gun law reforms did in fact reduce violent crime. Australia reformed its gun laws comprehensively in 1996, after years of argument and a string of mass shootings. Gun ownership was not prohibited, but it became harder to qualify, and certain weapons were banned. Tougher prerequisites and conditions made gun ownership a far less casual matter.

Earlier research on the impact of the Australian reforms showed that the 1996 reforms have saved hundreds of lives as well as billions of dollars in policing and legal costs. That research focused on the easiest indicator to measure, the number of deaths prevented. Now a new study has examined the impact on gun crime in general – which is important, as fatalities constitute only a small portion of the scourge that is gun violence. That study, by Benjamin Taylor (Harvard Law School) and economist Jing Li (Miami University, Ohio), concludes that Australia’s gun law reforms led to significant reductions in armed robbery and attempted murder. This makes sense, since the availability of a firearm is often the factor determining whether or not a criminal – especially a young one – decides to proceed with a particular crime.

Another study, just released, examines the record of so-called “concealed carry” in the United States. Americans can obtain, with very little vetting, a permit to carry a loaded pistol wherever they go – ostensibly for the purpose of heroically defending themselves against bad guys they may encounter during the course of their day. The Violence Policy Centre, a thinktank in Washington DC, has counted the cases on the public record of permit holders firing their weapons. Over the past seven years, at least 722 people have been killed in at least 544 concealed-carry shootings. The deaths included 17 police officers. Only 16 shootings were ruled by the court to have been in self-defence. It seems that the availability of a firearm in a pocket or handbag may affect one’s judgment, especially if the vetting procedure has been minimal.

Even in the US, where progress is excruciatingly slow, there is progress nonetheless. The national Congress may be paralysed in the grip of the gun lobby, but dozens of small gun-related measures have been moving through state legislatures across the country. Some of these measures are for stronger laws and some for weaker, but on balance the former are ahead.

It’s no coincidence that the world is moving toward stronger regulation of firearms. Policymakers from different countries are discussing the topic at global and regional fora, from the United Nations to NATO to the African Union. Human bodies in every country are equally vulnerable to a product designed to tear through flesh and bone and muscle. That product is very attractive to criminals everywhere, and lends itself easily to trafficking. Thus the international community has recognised the need to work toward stronger and more uniform regulation, within and among countries.

One feature increasingly being included in gun control reforms is amnesty, collection and destruction programmes. Depending on the context, these programmes may be voluntary (as in Brazil) or compulsory (as in Australia, where the types of weapons that became prohibited had to be handed in). Both Australia and Brazil paid cash compensation in return for guns handed in; in other countries the rewards have been of other types: training courses, job opportunities, building materials or groceries.

According to Argentinian researcher Diego Fleitas, who studies weapons collection programmes, we now have enough experience to identify some lessons learned. He notes that the preparation phase is critical to eventual success or failure. Successful programmes involve careful planning, good research, and effective communication with the media, the general public and with the people from whom the guns are expected to be recovered. It’s important that the whole community understand the purpose, the process and the facts about gun violence and the risks of guns in the home. Although guns are mainly in the possession of men, international research shows that women hand in large proportion of weapons for destruction, because they are highly motivated to “clean their houses.” Law enforcement agencies need to gear up for technical and logistical challenges. Community safety is a matter for everyone, not just the police, so trusted community leaders and organisations should be involved.

Some weapons collection schemes fail because they are small, local events, not conducted within a larger policy framework designed to stop the surrendered guns being replaced. Amnesty and destruction programmes can serve to drain the pool of dangerous weapons in our communities. They need to be accompanied by strong gun laws, which serve to shut off the tap so the pool doesn’t immediately fill up again. DM

Rebecca Peters was Director of the International Action network on Small Arms (IANSA) – a trans-national civil society network advocating for reducing gun violence – and also a major force behind the gun reforms that occurred in Australia in 1996.

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