14 Feb 2013

South Africa and gun violence: tough laws, high crime

The death of Reeva Steenkamp – girlfriend of Paralympian Oscar Pistorius – may have shocked South Africa, but with the fear of gun violence widespread, are their laws tough enough?

South Africa and gun violence under the spotlight after Oscar Pistorius shooting (Getty)

In an interview with The Daily Mail last summer, Paralympic star Oscar Pistorius listed the weapons he has in his home: a pistol by his bed, a machine gun by the window, and a cricket bat and baseball bat behind the door.

“The problem is when the guards are in on the crime. It’s usually safe in guarded estates like this until that happens,” he said at the time.

South Africa’s reputation for violence is well-documented. It has startlingly high rates of murder, assault, rape and robbery. In 2010, the latest year for which the UN has statistics for the country, 15,940 people were murdered in South Africa. That’s the equivalent of just over 40 people every day.

Pistorius is not alone in owning a weapon for self-defence – but he is perhaps unusual.

There are around 2.5 million legal gun owners in South Africa, according to the South African Gunowners Association (SAGA). That’s in a country of 50 million people. There are, of course, many more illegal, unlicensed guns in the country – some estimates suggest up to 6 million – but for comparison, in the United States there are nearly 300 million guns to a population of around 315 million.

Oscar Pistorius is not alone in owning a weapon for self-defence in South Africa – but he is perhaps unusual.

Martin Hood of SAGA told Channel 4 News that the main reason many South Africans owned guns was for self-defence.

“The teething problems in our democracy at this stage means that unfortunately we just have a very high level of violent crime. The slight majority of people who own firearms own them for self defence,” he said. Other reasons include for business, sports and hunting.

Guns in the hands of criminals

The picture of gun ownership in South Africa has been changing dramatically since 2000, when the government cracked down on weapons in a bid to end the violence of the 1990s. In fact, the Centre for Armed Violence Reduction in London says the country “shines out” as a good example of positive firearm regulation reform which has cut gun violence.

South Africa now has very strict gun laws – and while many people are still killed by gunfire, Mr Hood is adamant that these are guns in the hands of criminals rather than law-abiding citizens.

“The conviction rates for legal gun owners using firearms are actually very low. It’s an old statistic, but the police say it is about 0.04 per cent,” he said.

He added: “What has happened is a tragedy, but fortunately it is an infrequent and isolated type of tragedy and it would be just as unfortunate if organisations tried to make some mileage out of this for their own causes when we don’t know the full circumstances yet.

“Other firearm owners cannot be held responsible legally or morally for the actions of one individual. That individual makes the decision to use a firearm – and they have to live with the consequences of that decision.”

Easier to get a legal gun in the UK

In order to legally own a gun in South Africa, first the prospective owner undergoes a thorough police background check which involves an interview with the spouse or partner as well as two other people. Then there is a competency requirement which encompasses training as well as a criminal record screening.

Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder (Reuters/Getty)

“On top of that, the police have the discretion to give a licence or not and the applicant has to explain comprehensively why they have to own a firearm. Put it this way, it’s a lot easier to get a shotgun licence in the UK than it is in South Africa,” Mr Hood told Channel 4 News.

However, regardless of how hard it may be to get a licence, the fact remains that Ms Steenkamp died of gunshot wounds. It is still unclear whether she was shot accidentally or otherwise.

Alan Storey from Gun Free South Africa said for campaigners like him, deaths like Ms Steenkamp’s were a reminder that a legal gun does not mean a safe gun.

“It’s a tragedy but having said that, from a Gun Free South Africa perspective, with any gun death we are saddened but we are also angered, because we truly believe it is preventable,” he told Channel 4 News.

“Without a gun in that house, it would not have taken place. The fact is that without a gun there cannot be a gun fatality.”

Without a gun in that house, it would not have taken place. Alan Storey, Gun Free South Africa

He said he understood why some South Africans wanted guns for protection, but said actually they were putting themselves at greater risk by having a gun in the house. Plus, he added, as 2,000 legal firearms are stolen every month, most of the guns used by criminals come from originally legitimate owners.

“So the next time an attacker comes into my house he’s coming with a gun not a knife because he stole it from around the corner,” he said.

Bullets do not respect bureaucracy

The debate over regulation is one which other countries will recognise – the Pistorius tragedy comes in the week that US President Barack Obama pledged to take action on gun control in his flagship State of the Union address.

Stricter controls can help bring down gun violence levels, Mr Storey said, praising the work already done in South Africa.

“The latest statistics we have is that the killing of women in intimate relations has halved from 1999 to 2009. What has come down here is killing with a firearm and so from that we learn that if we bring in tighter regulation, down the line there is the direct, causal saving of lives,” he said.

However, for those hoping President Obama’s stricter regulations and background checks – should they pass into law – will solve America’s gun crime problem, incidents like the death of Ms Steenkamp are sobering. Bullets do not respect bureaucracy. And that’s why there’s more work to be done, said Mr Storey: “We would call for more stringent controls and we are committed to the dream – and we are a country of dreams that have come true – of a gun-free South Africa.”