I guess it’s about what defines ‘gun-control’ for you. For Gun Free South Africa, it means no guns in South Africa ever. For Minister Cele, it means no guns in civilian hands. And to law-abiding citizens who have a reasonable expectation of being able to protect themselves, hunt game for venison and pursue sport shooting it means a dependable, consistent, and well-regulated regime of firearm licensing – simply a system that rewards responsible, competent, and lawful firearm owners and one that refuses the licensing of persons who have failed to demonstrate their competency to possess a firearm.
In the wake of several mass shootings in the United States during May 2022, there is a clear increase in calls by anti-firearm lobby groups for tightening of firearm control legislation and in some cases outright bans on the possession of firearms by private persons. Essentially, we are talking not simply gun control, but gun control in the extreme – an extreme that would be satisfied when only military and police have lawful access to firearms.
Opposing sides in any debate will naturally select empirical evidence to underpin their view. In this opinion piece, I seek to maintain a balanced view presenting facts in a rational discussion on an emotional topic.
The natural tendency in South Africa is to look elsewhere in the world for a model as to what other countries are doing. Although it may suit the anti-firearm lobby to use, for example, New Zealand and Canada as models of how to address gun control in South Africa, such a notion ignores the significant differences between South Africa and those other countries.
If there is to be a model of firearm control in South Africa that will succeed in the long term it ought to be based on a concept that can simply be introduced as ‘The Triad of Interests’. This implies that there are three distinct groups who are involved with, interested in, and affected by firearm control in South Africa.
The government, as with any authority has an interest in controlling access to and possession of firearms in the community, the police have operational requirements and practical reasons for controlling access, possession, and use of firearms by private persons and the commercial security industry, and finally, the public has a legitimate expectation of being permitted under fair and reasonable regulations to lawfully access firearms for self defence, hunting and sporting purposes.
The triad of interests is interdependent, and it ought to be clear that none of the three groups involved may try to unilaterally increase its own influence and expect to be successful in usurping the lawful and rational position of the others.
Firstly, South Africans live in an extremely violent society. Perhaps the most useful measure of this is to recall the statement of the minister of police to parliament in 2018 when he said, “South Africans are living in a war zone, yet we are not at war”. After that time, the statistics for most crimes, and certainly murder and rape have increased, with an increase of 22.2% in murder confirmed in the last week by the South African Police Services (SAPS). To say that the SAPS is embattled, would be an understatement – SAPS has frequently admitted that it cannot cope with the task of protecting the public against violent crime.
Secondly South Africans have a resilient spirit and have historically ignored legislation and regulations with which they find no common ground. An example of this is the failure of the government to compel South African motorists to support the Etoll system. A parallel in the context of firearm control is the clear message that has reportedly been sent to the government by organisations and community groupings from opposite ends of the political spectrum – the Suidlanders and the Mini-bus taxi industry are said to have told the government that they will not be surrendering firearms. Within this spectrum there are rumors of other political and community groups that have expressed similar attitudes.
Thirdly, the perceived right to defense of self and others from violent criminal (life threatening) attack, especially in the light of the proven inability of the government to protect the community is a strong motivator for South Africans to insist on being lawfully armed. Essentially speaking, whether they are legally or illegally armed, South Africans are more scared of dying at the hands of a criminal than they are of being arrested for being in possession of an unlicensed firearm. There is anecdotal information about persons who, when learning of the process to acquire a licence for a firearm have said that they will simply go and buy an unlicensed gun.
Taking these points into account, if the regulation of firearms in South Africa is to be successful the law must satisfy the multiple standards of representing the will of the people, serving the interests of the people, being equitable and passing constitutional muster, being rational, and finally being enforceable. It would be prudent of the government to realise that they will not solve the issue of firearms in criminal hands by denying lawful persons the opportunity to own licensed firearms – it could be said that an extreme approach from any of the ‘triad groups’ cannot be sustainable and may not even succeed at all in the short term.
Within this context then we could consider the broader debate around firearms in society, including unlicensed firearms in criminal hands and the multiple sources of unlicensed firearms.
The mainstay of the anti-firearm lobby is the claim that homicides are driven and facilitated by firearms. Indisputably, a firearm can make the act of killing another person more convenient (less personal) than employing a knife or a wooden club. But mere access to a firearm doesn’t establish the motivation for murder. Conversely, for the law-abiding person who legally acts to defend an innocent life, a firearm also makes the act of self-defense immediately more effective than using a knife or a wooden club – especially when there are multiple attackers – or when a woman must defend herself against an attacker who outweighs her in strength and kilograms.
It may be useful to consider if people would stop murdering one-another if all private firearms (licensed and unlicensed) were removed from society. A review of homicide statistics in California and Illinois – two locations widely recognised for their robust gun control laws – and a look at knife crime stats in the UK suggest that broad-brush gun control doesn’t yield the expected benefits.
On June 6th, the news channel ABC7 in Chicago reported that over the Memorial Day Weekend there were 47 shootings in Chicago, of which 9 were fatal. This despite all time off over the weekend being cancelled for the Chicago PD in an effort to increase police presence around the city. Also reported by ABC7 is the fact that Less than half of all guns used in crimes in Illinois come from that state.
Meanwhile in California, that state has managed to garner the reputation for the number 1 in active shooter incidents, despite being number 1 in gun control measures. (California is No. 1 in “active shooter incidents”.) According to the FBI, there were 61 “active shooter incidents” across the country in 2021 and 12 of the incidents met the definition of a “mass killing”. California led the nation with six “active shooter incidents”.
Focusing again on Illinois, it is noteworthy that Cook County, of which the city of Chicago is part, despite claiming the strictest firearm laws in the state, also recorded more gun homicides in 2020 than any other year. Despite a plethora of technical restrictions and laws which affect the opportunity for law abiding firearm owners to pursue their sport and protect themselves, the statistics prove that criminals simply ignore the law.
California has, amongst other firearm control measures, universal background checks, an “assault weapons” ban, a “high capacity” magazine ban, a 10-day waiting period on gun purchases, a red flag law, gun registration requirements, a “good cause” requirement for concealed carry permit issuance, a ban on carrying a gun on a college campus for self-defense, a ban on teachers being armed on campus for classroom defense, a background check requirement for ammunition purchases, and a limit on the number of guns a law-abiding citizen can purchase in a given month. Additionally, ammunition purchases are only allowed if made through a state-approved vendor. These restrictions or (‘gun-control’) have not delivered the expected result.
In Japan, where it is virtually impossible to own a private firearm, knife crime has increased and the nation is known for one of the worst mass-stabbing incidents in history. In the 12 months ending March 2019 the United Kingdom, 43,516 knife crime offences were recorded – an 80% increase from the low point in the year ending March 2014. And a year later, statistics for knife crimes from beginning April 2020 to March 2021: – Fatal Injury – 223, – Injury with intent to cause serious harm – 21,421, – Threat to kill – 4,984 – Attempted murder – 465.
In South Africa, in contrast to the claim of anti-firearm lobby groups such as Gun Free South Africa that firearms are the leading cause of homicide, it is more reliably reported by the South African Medical Research Council (SAMRC) in its latest national survey of injury-related deaths, published in September 2021, that statistically, the actual murder weapon of choice for South Africans is a knife.
The SAMRC report, referred to in an article by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS Report) confirms that weapons like knives (‘sharp force’) account for 41% of murders in South Africa, while firearms account for 32%). The inflation and decontextualization of statistics around firearms is unhelpful and irresponsible when one considers how many law abiding citizens rely on a personal licensed firearm to protect them while they wait for a police response.
I have written before that firearms are a necessary and intrinsic part of a civilised community. We have to concede that the rule of law in any country is underpinned by a firearm. It is the tool that provides the police with the final authority to enforce the law, or for that matter even a relatively minor decision of a magistrates court. We use firearms to protect our leaders, our national assets and our borders. Every person who has contracted with an armed response company expects an appropriately armed security officer to respond rapidly to a press on the panic button, and they expect that officer to be to be able to deal with a life threatening situation.
‘Gun-control’, properly organised and sustained in a manner that rewards law abiding citizens and punishes criminals is fully supported by Safe Citizen. It makes no sense to punish law abiding citizens who sit without government protection in an effort to stop criminals using firearms.
Gun control does not work on criminals.
Jonathan Deal is the founder and national coordinator of Safe Citizen.