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With streamlined firearm legislation making deadly weapons more accessible to the public, thousands of illegal weapons still unaccounted for in South Africa, violence monitors and anti-gun lobbyists warn that mass killings like those at Sandy Hook and Columbine are a real threat.
A string of mass shootings across the globe has pushed the debate on gun control into high gear, an issue made more topical in the South African context because of the country’s violent past.
In the 2011 to 2012 year, the police received a total of 125 388 new firearm applications, but with an existing float of illegal guns in the country, it is impossible to pinpoint how many firearms are in the hands of South Africans.
KwaZulu-Natal violence monitor Mary de Haas said illegal weapons, including those stolen from the police and from the army, effectively nullified the tightening of gun control legislation.
“The figure for guns stolen from the police is scary. A few years ago, 43 guns were stolen from the Maphumulo police station in what was clearly an inside job, because they were selected from those in the store room and were linked to taxi violence cases; when I last heard from the police about them none had been recovered,” she said.
“To make matters worse, there are still about 64 tons of the Vlakplaas weapons delivered to the province in early 1994 which are unaccounted for. The equivalent of about two truckloads was found and destroyed 10 years ago, but goodness knows where the other four truckloads are.
“These weapons include rocket launchers, anti-tank mines and grenades, more than enough to start a civil war,” De Haas said.
She said that fly-by-night security companies that acquired weapons and then went out of business also contributed to the mounting quandary of illegal and untraceable guns.
“Generally, the violence here takes a different form from that of Sandy Hook or Columbine, but, having said that, in any country there is a risk that some crank with access to guns can go on a similar shooting spree,” she warned.
Amid speculation from some gun licence holders that licences became available within 18 days of their applications being submitted, police have said that they aim to process all licence applications within 90 days.
“All applications are considered on merit and a detailed motivation document must be provided.
“In the case of an application being finalised in under three weeks, it simply means that the applicant had already obtained a competency certificate and that all forms were completed fully and correctly,” police spokesman Brigadier Lidela Mashigo said.
“The fact is that the Firearms Act promotes responsible firearm ownership and as such, all members of society are entitled to apply to possess one should they see fit,” he added.
Wouter de Waal of Gun Owners South Africa said there were no dangers in an armed society.
“History shows that armed societies are far safer.
“Disarmament in countries like the UK has not made it safer at all.
“If you look at similar countries, you will find that the firearm ownership rate and the murder rate are inversely proportional,” he said.
“The fact is that no gun law has ever reduced crime or the supply of weapons to criminals. It is impossible to legislate guns out of the hands of criminals.
“Consequently, the claim that gun laws are aimed at crime control is false. Gun control has a negative effect on public safety, in South Africa and everywhere else,” De Waal added.
Claire Taylor, spokeswoman for Gun Free South Africa, countered this, saying that gun control legislation had saved thousands of lives.
“Twenty-nine percent of non-natural deaths were due to firearms in 2002, and this had dropped to 10.8 percent by 2008, while deaths from stabbings and transport accidents remained stable. Reducing access to guns is one of the few interventions shown to be effective in immediately reducing violence, while other interventions take much longer to have an impact,” she said.
“If you look at what happened at Sandy Hook, one person killed so many in under 20 minutes.
“If there are guns in society there is always the risk of that happening.
“If you contrast the shooting at Sandy Hook against the school knife attack in China, in the latter no one was killed.
“Guns are designed to take life,” she added.
In the latest massacre, 28 people were killed, including 22 children, when Adam Lanza, 20, went on a shooting rampage with a hunting rifle and two handguns at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut.
This incident came a year after the killing of 69 people on the Swedish resort island of Utoya, with extremist Anders Breivik wielding a number of weapons on his infamous killing mission.