It is not easy to own a gun in South Africa

It takes at least 5 kilograms of pressure to fire a Glock handgun – the same handgun that Oscar Pistorius discharged at Tasha’s, in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Pistorius gun ownership
“I don’t believe Pistorius when he says he did not apply any pressure to the trigger.” John Welch (Image: Richard)

Sulaiman Philip

It takes at least 5 kilograms of pressure to fire a Glock handgun – the same handgun that Oscar Pistorius discharged under a table at Tasha’s, a popular family restaurant in Rosebank, Johannesburg.

Pistorius’s claims that the gun allegedly went off by mistake as it was handed to him seems farfetched and improbable says South African Gun Owners spokesman Advocate John Welch. “In my book Pistorius and [friend Darren] Fresca were negligent and reckless. Locked and cocked [when showing off a handgun] is ridiculous. I don’t believe him when he says he did not apply any pressure to the trigger.”

Or, in the words of New Yorker magazine journalist Amy Davidson: “Guns behave strangely in Pistorius’ hands. As he tells it, they have an eerie autonomy.”

Testimony by witnesses, and now Pistorius, has highlighted a macho, reckless attitude to gun ownership. There seems to be a sector, a small percentage Welch stresses, whose idea of masculinity is tied up in not just owning but showing off their guns. It is a way of life that mirrors the gun culture in the United States, whose one-time slogan was, “You can have my guns when you pry them from my cold dead fingers”.

There have also been 220 school shootings in the US since Sandy Hook – in December 2012 Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six staff at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut – most not even making the news because they have become so commonplace. After the Sandy Hook shootings there was a push by the gun lobby for even less gun control. They argued, as they did after the massacre at Columbine High School in 1999, that an armed teacher could have ended the shooting spree and saved lives.

Right to bear arms

In the United States, there is an enshrined right to gun ownership. The Second Amendment of the US Constitution guarantees every citizen the right to bear arms – in a well-regulated militia. Attempts by the government to control gun ownership, even an act as simple as requiring a fee for a licence, has been met with outrage and protest, led by the US gun lobby.

This is not the case in South Africa, where legislation is aimed at limiting handgun ownership rather than encouraging it. The Firearms Control Act of 2000 has as its stated aim a protection of the constitutional right to life and bodily integrity. This has meant that any applicant for a gun licence has to show an overriding need before a licence is issued.

The intention is to make it difficult to own a handgun, especially important in a country where from 2011 to 2014 civilians lost between 15 and 28 guns every day and police officers lost between 2 and 5 guns every day.

The first hurdle after a licence application is a background check, which includes interviews with a partner or spouse as well as two other people, friends or relatives. The competency requirement involves training and a criminal record check. Finally, the applicant is interviewed at a police station where they have to explain their reason for needing a firearm.

According to Welch, it can cost R10 000 and take about four months from the beginning of the process to the point where you can walk out of a gun shop with a weapon. You are allowed to obtain four licences and the full process is repeated for each licence. “That’s about a thousand rand for applications and licences and training, depending on the number of sessions you need. The biggest cost is the gun itself. If you get a decent German or American gun you are looking at at least R7 500.”

Included in the training that goes hand-in-glove with a licence application, is testing on familiarity with the law. Sean Rens, Pistorius’s instructor and the manager of International Firearm Training Academy, testified that Pistorius knew and understood the requirements of the law as it pertained to discharging his gun. Rens also testified about Pistorius’s enthusiasm and love for guns and how he wanted to build his arsenal by using Rens to bend the law. The athlete had asked Rens if he could use a collector’s licence to buy a semi-automatic assault rifle, three shotguns, another self-loading rifle and two Smith & Wesson handguns.

Self-defence is no motivation

Pistorius was originally denied a gun licence on the grounds that his stated reason was a need to defend himself. Self-defence is not sufficient motivation to be granted a gun licence according to the Act. Welsh argues, however, that self-defence is a sound rationale and should be considered as grounds. The South African Police Service argument that awareness of your surroundings and to actively avoid areas of danger makes no sense, he says. “The law is very clear. You need to prove a need but that is a very complicated thing. You can argue that no-one needs a gun for self-defence because we can rely on the police. However, policing in South Africa is pro-active; they will not be at your home in 10 or 20 minutes to protect you or your family.”

During cross examination in his trial, prosecutor Gerrie Nel pushed Pistorius on his reason for not firing a warning shot before shooting blindly into the toilet, where his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp was killed. The question was put to him often, and phrased differently. Each time, Pistorius answered “I don’t know” or refused to answer.

In the transition to democracy in 1994, there was a surge in gun sales in what amounted to panic buying. It is difficult to determine how many guns there are in South Africa today but Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) estimates that, as of August 2011, there were 1.8 million legal gun licence holders, or 5,9 guns for every 100 people in the country.

GFSA’s Claire Taylor says implementation of the legislation has, over time, pushed the number of gun deaths down; it has especially had a positive effect on the number of women killed with a gun by an intimate partner. Women are still especially vulnerable in homes with guns, but where there was one death every four hours in 1999, there are three deaths a day now. “In 1999, 34% of women murdered by their intimate partner was killed with a gun; in 2009, this figure dropped to 17%. Research shows that implementation of the Act has saved the lives of 5 000 women, at least.”

An applicant for a gun licence needs to be at least 21 years of age with no history of alcohol or substance abuse. The licence, once it is awarded, is valid for five years; renewals are usually rubber stamped. Taylor says that GFSA has been campaigning to raise the barriers even higher, especially when it comes to renewals.

Psychological testing

For some opponents, the mention of psychological testing is controversial but Taylor says that her organisation’s experience has shown that it is necessary. Each month the NGO helps at least one woman in her attempt to have her partner’s gun licence rescinded. “Most women who have been threatened by an intimate partner do not know they can go to their local police station to ask for a hearing to have a gun owner declared unfit to own a gun.”

For men like Pistorius – and it is most often men – gun ownership is a proxy for a high-risk lifestyle that can include reckless and drunk driving or alcohol and substance abuse. Taylor does concede that for most of South Africa’s 1.8 million licenced gun owners, having a firearm in the house is about protecting themselves and their families. However, research in South Africa and internationally shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than you are able to use it to defend yourself. “Owning a gun is not a protective factor: rather it is a risk factor for suicide, accidental death and injury, and murder.”

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