Guns have been part of society for more than a thousand years, when they first appeared as bamboo tubes that propelled a type of spear. In contemporary society, quite apart from the traditional use of guns for hunting, sport shooting and self-defence, it is a gun — or perhaps the threat of the application of a gun — that underpins the rule of law, lending ultimate enforceability to the decision of a court or the defence of a national border.
As attractive as the prospect of a world without any guns may be to anyone of the view that an ideal society is gun-free in every respect, it is simply unrealistic. The South African Police Service, metro police, SA National Defence Force, prisons units, anti-poaching units in national parks, border patrols and the commercial security industry rely on guns to back up their authority.
We protect our ministers, assets, celebrities and visiting dignitaries with guns, we lawfully use guns for hunting and competitive sport shooting and we rely on them for self-defence against a life-threatening attack. Whether we like it or not, guns are intrinsic to civilisation. A firearm removes the disparity in physical strength, size or numbers between a potential attacker and a defender and is realistically the only personal weapon that puts a 60kg woman on an equal footing with a 120kg attacker.
German author Marko Kloos argues that force has no place as a valid method of social interaction. Kloos maintains that the only thing that effectively removes unlawful force from the menu is the personal firearm. If one considers that the sum of all human interactions can be reduced to either reason or force, it follows that when the norms of civilised society fail to uphold the rules by reason or oral persuasion, the rules are broken or enforced using any weapon or by threatening to use one.
People opposed to guns claim that guns drive homicides, but is this a suitable explanation for the murder rate in South Africa? Is the gun an invention that fosters evil behaviour, or do humans possess a capacity for evil that predates modern firearms?
In 14th-century England, long before guns were around, the homicide rate was estimated to be around 110 per 100,000 in a population of about 2,500,000 — that is more than three times South Africa’s current homicide level in a population that was 24 times smaller than the population of South Africa today. Many murders take place without a gun.
The capacity for evil in animals confirms instances of sadistic cruelty — from a cat playing with a mouse prior to killing it, to chimpanzees who will systematically cannibalise their young, and it is clear that a similar capacity is present in every human.
Ben Wilson of the University of the Highlands and Islands in Inverness, UK asserts that “arguably the real mystery lies not in the origin of ‘evil’ behaviours but in the fact that humans now generally view these [unsocial] behaviours as distasteful — even though deception, selfishness and other ‘evil’ traits appear to be widespread in nature, and generally beneficial for the survival of genes, animals and species”.
John Armstrong, a British writer and philosopher at The School of Life, sees a gulf between human aspiration for justice and ethics and the laws of nature. Often we feel that something that is “evil” is against the natural order of things, or, as Armstrong puts it, “at odds with everything one might hope for”. But perhaps the opposite is actually true: it is “bad” behaviour that is natural and successful. “What’s surprising is how amazingly well (though still very imperfectly) human beings have tried to reverse this natural arrangement,” he says.
The anti-gun establishment asserts that physical confrontations are made more lethal by a gun. In any physical confrontation the winner is the physically superior participant. Thus, any human with an evil intention against another and the determination to make it happen will find a suitable weapon. In countries where public gun possession is severely curtailed or banned, criminals turn to other methods of murder. Take as examples the experience of mass stabbings in Japan and knife-related crimes in the United Kingdom, where (in the UK) 43,516 knife crime offences were recorded in the 12 months ending March 2019 — an 80% increase from the low point in the year ending March 2014. Japan, coincidentally, is one of the countries recently lauded by Police Minister Bheki Cele as not permitting civilian gun ownership.
In France on Bastille Day 2016, 31-year-old Tunisian Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, denied access to a gun, simply rented a 19-ton refrigeration lorry and drove it into crowds of holidaymakers on the Nice beachfront, killing 86 people and injuring 458 others.
Disarming lawfully armed civilians in a society like South Africa will afford criminals a force-monopoly within which to ply their trade of robbery, rape and murder.
Most certainly a gun makes it easier for an attacker, but the converse is true for the defender, and it is well established that criminals prefer unarmed victims. The fact that possession of a firearm makes it more convenient for a criminal to do his job doesn’t establish a good reason to disempower his victims by disarming them. It is irrational to conclude that disarming law-abiding citizens will lead to the disarming of criminals — especially in South Africa with the abundance of stolen military and state small arms in circulation in our region.
Cele, releasing crime statistics to Parliament in 2018, had to admit that police had “dropped the ball” and that South Africans were living in a war zone in a country that wasn’t at war. Since then murder and violent crime have increased. The murder of a woman by an armed male spouse is a tragedy, and so is the raping and murder of innocent people who are strangers to their attackers. Attacks by criminals on strangers greatly outnumber instances of intimate partner femicide.
Finally, it should be borne in mind that a spouse with murderous intent may find an alternate means to kill his wife.
Kloos neatly frames the conclusion of this opinion: “When I carry a gun, I don’t do so because I am looking for a fight, but because I’m looking to be left alone. The gun at my side means that I cannot be forced, only persuaded. I don’t carry it because I’m afraid, but because it enables me to be unafraid. It doesn’t limit the actions of those who would interact with me through reason, only the actions of those who would do so by force. It removes force from the equation… and that’s why carrying a gun is a civilised act.” DM