In a survey of 63 states South Africa is second only to Colombia in homicide rates involving a gun. Granted the gun is not the direct problem, but how it is used. It follows that with the frequency of gun-related violence one cannot but think that if there was tighter control, there would be less violence. Murder rates are slowly declining, but the number of people killed with guns is increasing. In 1998 over half of those murdered were killed with guns. The number of licenses issued for gun ownership has simultaneously increased. Nearly 200 000 new firearm licenses are issued each year.
Is this coincidental? Those supporting the gun lobby would say it is. They would argue that it was not legal firearms that were used to kill over 11 000 people last year. They would add they have a right to protect themselves in a dangerous society. In that regard, they are correct, but at the same time, we need to responsibly accept the consequences of incrementally arming ourselves.
To promote responsible gun ownership in South Africa a new Bill was passed by Cabinet last month. Intense opposition from the South African gun lobby then ensued. They feel they were not consulted and that the Bill, which stresses the tighter control of legal firearms and the screening and renewal of applicants for licenses, is untenable.
The issue of consultation is difficult to understand. The Bill is not law. It has been forwarded to Parliament where a full public consultation process and public hearings will take place early next year. Only then will the Bill become law.
The misguided complaints about insufficient consultation by the gun lobby have helped create the polemical impression that gun owners have been side-lined. The gun lobby has helped create a perception that the Bill advocates that it will be impossible to get a licensed gun. This is simply not true. The Bill is about gun control, not gun eradication. Those who wish to own guns for self-defence purposes will be able to do so. Special interest groups such as hunters and collectors will not be limited in the number of guns they can own.
Applicants will be screened before a gun license will be issued. They will have to pass a verbal competency test, provide a certificate that they have been trained to use the weapon, and sign an affidavit that they are not a substance abuser or have a history of violence. It seems strange that anyone would oppose this. We have to pass a test to drive a car, surely a test, and a minimal one at that, to use a deadly weapon should be welcomed. Surely any rational person would acknowledge the importance of having competent and stable gun users.
Renewal of licenses and screening is, according to the gun lobby, also too expensive. Again they have stretched the truth. Guns used by hunters will only have to be renewed every 10 years, and for self-defence users every five years. It is only licenses for especially deadly weapons such as semi-automatic arms that will have to be renewed every two years.
Guns have other costs that the gun lobby routinely fail to mention. Not only is there a human cost associated with the thousands of gun-related fatalities each year, but gun injuries cost the state a fortune. From a study conducted at Groote Schuur Hospital in 1993, it can be estimated that every 1000 patients treated for gunshot injury will cost about 30 million rand. One can also only speculate the cost involved in processing the 38 000 cases of negligent use of firearms the police had to deal with last year.
Granted the Bill focuses extensively on legal firearms. But licensing and regulation of guns has been shown to reduce the misuse of firearms across the board. In a study in Australia, it has been unequivocally shown that tighter gun laws reduce firearm-related crime.
Furthermore, the Bill addresses illegal weapons. It advocates mandatory 15 to 25-year sentences for illegal ownership and gives the police extensive powers to curb the proliferation of illegal weapons.
The Bill is hardly as draconian as the gun lobby would like us to believe. It simply advocates responsible usage and control that any thoughtful South African would support.
If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear. Gun control exists in most democracies. It sends out the message that guns are not toys and they need to be treated with due caution. It is high time a culture of respect of the destructive capability of guns was developed. At the same time the Bill starts to address the problem of illegal weapons.
It seems as if many South African gun owners protest too much and believe it is their constitutional right to mislead the public. They assume that if they are responsible with their guns others will be. They presuppose that their weapon will not be stolen and misused. They fail to mention that a gun owner is four times more likely to have their gun stolen than to use it in self-defence. They also live in a false reality that a gun accident will not happen to them, but then again so do most victims of violence until it happens. Their need for a gun seems to be controlling them, rather than acknowledging that it is time we responsibly took control of guns.
Published by Brandon Hamber, Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, Johannesburg, 1 December 1999.