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Opinionista

Land of the free vs land of the free-for-all

Marelise van der Merwe and Daily Maverick grew up together, so her past life increasingly resembles a speck in the rearview mirror. She vaguely recalls writing, editing, teaching and researching, before joining the Daily Maverick team as Production Editor. She spent a few years keeping vampire hours in order to bring you each shiny new edition (you're welcome) before venturing into the daylight to write features. She still blinks in the sunlight.

The US is almost as famous for its gun violence as for Hollywood and hamburgers. Who’s next in line to that rather dubious and violent throne?

More than 32,000 people die annually from gun violence in the US, with more people killed by guns than by cars.

Guns are used in at least 80% of cases for the purposes of violence of intimidation rather than protection.

There are a great deal more firearms than Americans in America; there are a great deal more firearms than people in America.

The US has the highest rate of gun ownership in the world.

And there are probably more statistics about gun violence in the US than there are guns in the US.

On Thursday, which happened to be the same day two journalists were gunned down on live television in the US, I had the privilege of listening to Bizcommunity journalist Ann Nurock speaking about Cannes at the University of Cape Town Graduate School of Business. One of the campaigns that had most stayed with Nurock was dubbed ‘Groceries Not Guns’; you may have heard of it. The gist of it is this: guns, skateboards, dogs and even water guns are not allowed in a major grocery store chain in the US. But firearms are. The campaign called for a boycott.

Watch: Groceries not guns

The news of the on-air shooting broke just after I left the hall, still thinking about the campaign. On the bright side, Forbes reported on Wednesday that Walmart was to stop selling stop selling assault rifles, semi-automatic shotguns and “other high-capacity weapons of the sort used in mass killings” – however mindboggling it may be that they sold them in the first place.

I felt simultaneously depressed and relieved by all this. As gun violence in the US escalates, it appears the country is, at least, finally waking up to the danger it is in.

One wonders when this will occur in South Africa. What you might not know is that as dangerous as it is in the US, South Africa is not far behind. We, in fact, have the second-highest rate of gun-related deaths in the world. The US has a prevalence of 10.4 gun-related deaths per 100,000. South Africa has a prevalence of 9.41. Next in line is Switzerland, way behind the two leaders with 3.84. The statistics up front, however, barely differ.

The SABC reported in May this year that South Africa sees 18 gun-related deaths per day.

Unfortunately, if the US is waking up to the reality of its gun problem slowly, South Africa is Rip van Winkle. The last year for which the United Nations (UN)  has reliable data on gun ownership in South Africa is 2010. Earlier this year, the Daily Maverick reported that the lack of data proved to be a major problem at the National Firearms Summit. Anecdotal evidence, however, was troubling. Rebecca Davis wrote at the time: “Professor Sebastian van As, head of the paediatric trauma unit at the Red Cross Children’s Hospital, told the summit that the number of children entering the hospital with gunshot wounds had significantly increased after the fast-tracking of gun licences since 2010 to deal with a backlog.

“Van As said this was not a situation unique to his hospital, but that it had also been experienced at a number of other Cape Town hospitals. ‘I’m just counting the number of kids coming with gunshots to the hospital,’” he said.”

Johan Schoeman of Gun Owners of South Africa, however, claimed he was representing 1.8-million licensed gun owners who constituted “the most law-abiding sector of South Africa”.

As much as gun owners may want to deny it, though, the truth is that gun controls do make a difference. A peer-reviewed study showed that after the Firearms Control Act was implemented in 2000, there was a statistically significant reduction in firearm-related homicide. Gun Free South Africa, too, credits the Act for a large improvement; the SABC recently reported that South Africa has improved its overall rate of homicides since the implementation of the Act. However, as the Igarapé Institute’s Robert Muggah put it: “If the FCA (Firearms Control Act) has one limitation, it is that it does not go far enough.”

The draft Firearms Control Amendment Bill, which caused major controversy at the abovementioned summit, will focus on improving policing and public security and reducing trafficking, Deputy Police Minister Maggie Sotyu said in July, at an event commemorating the annual UN Firearms Destruction Day. Critics, though, have noticed some logistical and practical problems with the Bill which will need to be remedied.

Inconveniently for anti-gun lobbyists, the proportion of gun-related deaths relative to the number of guns owned is low, however: South Africans own around 12 guns for every 100 people, which means there are many, many more guns than shootings. And, as a matter of fact, if someone in South Africa is going to do you in, you’re more likely to be on the business end of a sharp object.

But still. Gun Free South Africa says there’s been a spike in gun-related injuries which corresponds with the time frame in which gun licences were fast-tracked, after the police minister promised in November 2010 to deal with a backlog of licences.

And still. Gun owners are up to four times more likely to have their own gun used against them than to use it successfully in self-defence.

And most of all, shouldn’t it worry us that a rate of shootings that’s making international headlines from the US is going virtually unnoticed under our noses?

Gun ownership is a topic that strikes a nerve with just about everyone. Either you are afraid you’re going to lose someone to gun violence if you don’t own one, or you believe you’re going to lose someone if you do.

But here’s the thing: whatever side of the fence you’re on, we need to be talking about it. Whether you’re a rifle-toting hunter or a card-carrying member of Gun Free South Africa, you have to admit it’s weird that while the US is almost as famous for its gun culture as for Hollywood and hamburgers, down in South Africa we’re shooting each other at almost the same rate and nobody knows.

Now there’s a smoking gun if ever I saw one. DM

Edit: This feature previously quoted that guns were used 80x more often for the purposes of violence and intimidation than protection. This data was incorrect. In fact guns are used for violence or intimidation in a minimum of 80% of cases. Or, put another way, guns are used for violence and intimidation some 400 – 600% more than for protection (Hemenway). A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used in a completed or attempted suicide, criminal assault or homicide, unintentional shooting death or injury than in self-defence (Kellerman), and people in possession of a gun are nearly five times more likely to be shot (Branas).

The National Rifle Association in America often claims that guns are used 80 times more often to save lives. This is a reference to a study done by Kleck & Gertz which has been widely debunked by various scholars, firstly for the actual result claimed; secondly for the research methodologies used; thirdly for an omission of risk analysis; fourth for questionable base data, and lastly for comparing incidents which are, essentially, incomparable. The US National Crime Victimisation Survey distanced itself from the study entirely. More recent and reliable data supports the figures quoted above. 

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