Great gun debate: risk versus safety
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Amid calls from political figures for tighter gun control laws, pro-gun lobby groups say that more guns in good hands could stop a lot of crime. The Cape Argus took the debate to two leading figures from lobby groups in South Africa.
Cape Town - Will I be safe if I own a gun and know how to use it? Or will it simply pose a risk to my family and feed the criminal underworld if it is stolen?
Advocate John Welch, spokesman for the SA Gunowners’ Association (Saga), and Adele Kirsten of Gun Free SA weigh in on the pressing questions for ordinary people confronted with extraordinarily violent crime.
Are guns the best option for self defence?
Kirsten: There’s a difference between feeling safe and being safe. Having a gun does not make you safe, and having it in your home creates a risk. You are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to use it in self-defence. That’s not to say you must roll over and be the victim. Your response to an attack will be congruent with who you are.
Welch: If you are outnumbered, even a strong person will not be able to defend himself. The only chance you have is if you have a handgun. America’s National Rifle Association estimated that about two million crimes in America are thwarted each year merely by the production of a firearm, with no shot fired.
If you are overwhelmed at night by criminals, the ordinary person does not stand a chance.
Is the Firearms Control Act of 2000 doing its job?
Kirsten: Gun homicides are down 45 to 50 percent, on our calculation of mortuary data, and it’s due to the Firearms Control Act. That was the single most important intervention. But we’re beginning to see a spike in gun deaths again.
In 2010, there was a backlog of over a million firearm licence applications. (Former police minister) Nathi Mthethwa assembled a task team to process the licences, but our suspicion is that they were dealt with willy-nilly, and the law was not properly applied.
There have been signs that the integrity of the database has been compromised.
Welch: I believe the legislation is up to standard. If police make sure they do proper background checks, then we should have good firearm control.
But the Central Firearms Registry computer system is still not up and running. The government has failed us as far as that is concerned – it has not ensured that the Firearms Act is properly administered. I know people who applied for renewal of licences five years ago which have still not been processed. The amount of mistakes on licences and competency certificates is horrendous. But we are trying to rectify the situation.
How do legally-owned firearms get into the hands of criminals?
Kirsten: There are three main sources of illegal guns. The primary source is loss and theft from legal, gunowners – up to 20 000 a year.
The second source is loss or theft from state officials such as police and the military. Old stock is often taken from the military in what we call leakage. The third source is the cross-border trade.
It’s difficult to work out how many illegal guns there are. There are rumours that cops hire out their guns, and that guns from police evidence rooms are hired out or stolen. Our research shows that one of the most common places that cops left their weapons was on the toilet cistern.
Welch: Too many firearms are stolen. In all house robberies and farm robberies criminals are on the lookout for a firearm. There’s not an easy solution to that problem.
But one must not underestimate the number of homemade firearms, like the zip guns used by gangsters.
How do we go about stopping the flow of guns to criminals?
Kirsten: There is a link between legal and illegal guns. If you’re serious about controlling illegal guns, you need to start with the source. Not all gun crimes are committed with illegal guns – women are under particular threat of being shot and killed by a legal gun owned by an intimate partner. We want a safe and secure society, and being gun free is one of the only ways to achieve that.
Welch: Police must be properly trained and vetted. By taking guns away from law-abiding citizens, you are not removing them from criminals hands. You are denying citizens the right to protect themselves.
As a civilian feeling threatened by violent crime, should I get a gun?
Kirsten: It is an individual choice. We can however give information to help make an informed decision.
Research shows that having a gun for self defence does not ensure your safety. The risks of having a gun in the home are multiple: domestic violence, accidental discharge, mistaken identity shootings, kids setting it off, risk of suicide. An unintended consequence is that you could feed the illegal market.
We recognise that there are high levels of violent crime, and that people feel under threat, but getting a gun is not the answer. As citizens we can demand that our police be much better at intelligence and disarming criminals. That’s their job, not ours.
Welch: If a person believes they need to safeguard themself by becoming proficient in the use of firearms, we support the right of person to make that choice. But the possession of a firearm gives a false sense of security. A firearm is merely a tool. You must be competent with the firearm as well as what you intend doing with it.
Buying a handgun is not a solution to the violence problem. Other non-lethal objects may save your life. Getting a firearm for self-defence takes a firm decision, and sometimes that decision is taken too lightly.
What are the demographics of gun owners?
Kirsten: The Central Firearms Registry does not give a breakdown of race or gender, and I think that would be helpful. Until 1983, no black person could carry a gun. Then the law relaxed a bit, mainly so black cops could carry guns. In 1994 it opened up to everyone, so then of course we saw an increase. I assume that majority of licensed gun owners are white.
Welch: In terms of organised activities, the great majority are white males. When we look at handguns for self defence, there are many men and women of other colours. I would assume, on gut feel, majority would probably be white male.
As of August 2011, there were 1.8 million licensed civilian gun owners in South Africa. Of 100 people, four legally own a gun. This figure has decreased from 14 percent since 1994, and gun deaths have also declined – although recent statistics are not published by police.
According to Gun Free SA, 343 174 guns have been reported lost or stolen from police as well as civilians in the 19 years leading up to 2013. That’s an average of 52 a day – with 12 times more being stolen from civilians than police.
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