by Stephanie Hale
Controversy over a citizen’s right to own a gun has become a worldwide issue. From people in the United States using the constitutional provision allowing for protection against the government as justification for gun ownership, to people in South Africa using the extremely high crime rate as validation, it is evident that gun possession has become a real problem.
After the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in an upper middle class town in Connecticut, a tragedy killing 20 children and 7 adults, gun policy in the United States has come under fire. The United States has the highest per capita rate of firearm-related murders of all developed countries, with a rate of 3.2 gun related deaths per 100,00 people. Shockingly, Americans are 20 times more likely to be killed by a gun than a person from any other developed country in the world. What may be even more shocking is by how much South Africa trumps the United States in this category.
South Africa faces 17 gun-related deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the United States’ 3.2. However, South Africa does beat the US in fewer homicides by guns. Just over 67 percent of homicides in the US are committed by a firearm, compared to South Africa’s 45 percent. Regardless of the numbers, these statistics show one clear trend: guns are far too often the cause of death in countries all around the world, regardless of its economic position.
So why do people own guns in the first place? Because many South Africans face constant and pervasive crime on a day-to-day basis, citizens feel that the only adequate protection is owning a firearm. However, in lieu of the recent Oscar Pistorius case, perhaps firearm regulation in South Africa needs to be reassessed.
South African law dictates that licensed firearm owners are permitted to possess one firearm per firearm license. In addition to the licensed 9mm Parabellum pistol allegedly used to kill Oscar Pistorius’ girlfriend, police also found a machine gun in his house. Pistorius did not possess the necessary license to have such a weapon, so how did it come to be in his residence?
In a recent 2011 interview, Pistorius claimed that he slept with a machine gun and pistol in his bedroom because of the high crime rate prevalent in South Africa. However, police records show that when he first applied for the 9mm firearm in 2008, he was initially denied. He then appealed the decision in 2010 and was approved to carry this one weapon. It is not clear why the application was initially denied but it makes us examine whether this man should have been in the possession of guns in his house at all, especially since he was first denied such a right. Thus, it is crucial to take a look at gun regulation in South Africa when so many citizens follow Pistorius’ attitude towards how to ensure one’s safety.
South Africa has a population of 50 million. 6 million of these citizens own guns- an astonishing 12 percent of the population. Many of these weapons are illegally-owned and are justified as tools for personal security. While gun regulation is quite strict, with people applying for gun licenses forced to undergo rigorous background checks, the implementation of such regulatory standards proves to fall short. Alan Storey, chairman of the anti-firearm group, Gun Free South Africa, says it best: “We’ve got good gun legislation. What has been less than perfect has been the implementation of that gun legislation.”
This breakdown in gun regulation can be explained by the huge backlog in gun license applications. This puts the body administering licenses under pressure, often leading to negligence. This negligence can lead to the issuing of licenses to individuals who should not carry weaponry. A prime example of such carelessness occurred in March 2012. Despite confessing to the 2005 murder of mining tycoon Brett Kebble, Mikey Schultz and Nigel McGurk were reissued firearm licenses in 2012. How did these two men pass the gun license check on past episodes of violence?
This negligence, however, is not the only avenue for people to come to own firearms. Gun Owners of South Africa executive Wouter de Waal says that, “The state attempts to control guns…On the other hand it’s dead easy to buy an AK-47 off the streets. That’s the problem with gun control. It only controls law-abiding people”. With around 2,000 guns stolen from legal gun owners per month in South Africa, the state needs to clamp down on the amount of guns in this country and subsequently the means for acquiring these guns.
While it is true that South Africans face constant and real threats of crime, fear cannot make way to paranoia. Pretty soon each gun will simply justify the possession of another gun, an endless cycle that could eventually lead to every citizen feeling as if owning a gun is not only a necessity, but a way of life. Any society, regardless of which country it is in, does not become safer when everyone posses a weapon. Instead, the risks resulting from such firearms vastly increases. We must ask ourselves, is the ability to own a firearm veering from simply a personal choice to a matter of life or death for citizens around the world?
*South Africa’s lower rate of gun related homicides (45 percent compared to the United States’ 67) can be linked to The South African Firearms Control Act enacted in 2000. It was designed to create a more rigorous firearm control process and create specific policing actions to reduce firearms crime and violence. Data shows that there has been a significant decrease in number of firearm related deaths and injuries in South Africa since the inception of this bill. South Africa is clearly making strides in reducing gun violence, but more work still needs to be done.