Gun Free South Africa on awareness of gun violence brought by high profile case

Oscar Pistorius – Olympic and  Paralympian CHAMPION, a star of the field, a South African sporting hero and captivator of our hearts as someone who overcame adversity after having his legs amputated below the knee as a baby. Our Blade Runner.  Until the morning of 14th February 2013 when we woke up to the news that he had shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of the morning, with four gun shots fired through the door of his toilet in his house in an exclusive, secure complex in Pretoria. 

Oscar Pistorius contends that it was by accident, and that he heard a noise and mistook Reeva Steenkamp for an intruder. The state contends that it was murder. The case is still going on, and you can follow the latest developments on Sky News.

I have been troubled on quite a number of levels by the case. After much contemplation I came to the conclusion that the ONLY bit of positivity that can come out of the story is an increased awareness of gun safety, whether it be in and around the home or out in public. With that in mind, I contacted Gun Free South Africa, an organisation I’ve always been interested in and asked them a few questions.  Thank you so much to Claire Taylor the coordinator for giving so freely of her time. 

How and why did Gun Free South Africa come about?
GFSA has actually been around for 19 years. It’s the 20th anniversary of democracy in our country and the awareness around the idea started as SA was going into democracy. It was the dream of various political leaders, Nelson Mandela was one of them, that we didn’t want guns in the New South Africa. It started from a gun hand in campaign. Anyone could hand a gun in and get amnesty for that weapon. The leaders were hoping everyone would hand in their gun and this would be the start of the new South Africa. That didn’t happen. What did happen though is that people began to contemplate a new South Africa without guns. GFSA formed the following year in 1995. Since then we had the dual purpose, one is gun legislation and the other is public education and awareness. But our overall aim is to reduce gun violence.

Why do we have such a large prevalence of guns and gun violence in South Africa?
Gun violence is very high in South Africa. There are 18 people shot and killed every day in South Africa, and between 18 and 72 experience an incidence of gun violence every day. Believe it or not though because of awareness and campaigns like GFSA this has reduced from 34 people in 1999 a day to 18 people. But 18 is still very very high. There are some steps you can take to drop gun violence.  And here are some further facts about stats in South Africa. 

What safety steps should every gun owner religiously follow?
A gun is an extension of you. It has to be on you or in a holster. Or in a bag that you have with you. You can’t leave a bag somewhere else. Say for example a handbag or something that you have with you. Say for example in Oscar’s case, the fact that he had it under his bed, that would be under his control. But if he went to the bathroom, he would have to take the gun with him, otherwise it’s no longer under his control. Realistically speaking it’s not very possible to have the gun under your control all the time. So the law is very strict about that. If the gun is not under your direct control, it has to be stored in a safe and unloaded and that the safe is locked. 

Why do people especially young people and boys become fascinated with guns?
I’m not a psychologist, and I don’t know if there’s a huge difference between boys and girls, but I would think it’s because of the glamorization of guns. You have your gun and you sort out all the baddies, there’s a prestige to owning a gun. 

If you should become a victim of gun violence what steps should you take? What signs or symptoms can you look for which might make you think someone might be becoming dangerous?
Oscar’s case is very interesting, because there were so many incidents where he displayed negligence, for example at Tasha’s, but there were others, on the boat he left his gun wrapped in a towel on the boat. That’s negligence. Anyone could have found it. Then he left the gun on the car seat. So those types of things all indicate it. And the firearms act has got a section. Section 102, and what Section 102 allows for is for a gun owner to be declared unfit to own a gun. So someone can invoke that, and it doesn’t have to be someone who is threatened by the gun. It can be a neighbour, a friend or the family. As soon as they get a report of a gun owner, the police are obliged to have a hearing to assess the facts of the case. The problem is that people don’t know the law, they don’t know about section 102. So for example, it is illegal to threaten anyone with a gun unless your life or somebody else’s life is being threatened. We’ve had a case where a woman was threatened by her husband and what he would say is you know what I have in the safe. Not even that he pointed the gun at her or showed her the gun. He just mentioned it. You can’t point a gun at anyone it is illegal unless your life or someone else’s is in danger. It’s illegal to handle a gun if you are drunk. Or if you are on drugs. So there are a whole range of offenses. If the person has a history of violence, they are automatically precluded from owning a gun. 

There was research done by Van Kesteren who collated information from different countries across the world, mainly America and Europe, unfortunately South Africa wasn’t part of it, focussing on the age of people, whether or not they went out at night, the city they live in. When he took into account all those other factors, he still found that gun ownership was a significant risk factor in the occurrence of crime. Murder, armed robbery. I don’t know why gun ownership increased the risk of these, but it did. It coudl be because when people own a gun they become more aggressive and feel more powerful. Just by owning a gun you are already increasing your risk. 

What are Gun Free Zones?
They are fabulous. We call them islands of safety and basically what it does is it’s a bit like a no smoking zone. You’re saying to people I don’t feel safe with guns in my space. I don’t want guns in my space. And you’ve got a five step process if you want to encourage a community to have a Gun Free Zone. It’s drawing a distinction between individual safety and community safety. Very often I think gun owners think I feel safe, I’ve got my gun. And in a community setting when people don’t carry guns, they think I’m actually scared of you because you carry a gun. Just because you carry a gun and you feel safe doesn’t make me as a community member feel safer. I’m actually scared of you. Scared that it gets used against me. The other thing is it starts bringing different role players together. Look at schools who have safety teams and it consists of learners, parents, teachers, community policing forums. So that there’s a full group. Who then take responsibility for gun safety. Taking responsibility for their own safety. A community can be responsible. 

Often when you tell people guns should not be legal, they will counter with “it’s the person that’s the problem not the gun”. What is your comment on that and how do we counteract that?
It’s true, it is people, but it’s people armed with guns. And your example of teenagers, there is a problem with teenage suicide in South Africa. If you can keep a distance between a suicidal person and a gun, there is more chance of them surviving a suicide attempt. Keep that distance. Take a look at our brochure about teenage suicide in South Africa. 

What about people who say I’m teaching my child gun safety, I mean I hate seeing those pictures of children with guns. How do we even have that argument?
I think children and guns are a lethal combination and I think it’s a fallacy that we can teach children how – there’s this campaign in America where it teaches children if they see a gun to leave the gun alone, leave the area and call an adult. And there is evidence to show that even if they’ve been through this kind of campaign, they still take the gun and play with the gun. Even children whose parents have indicated they have no interest in the guns, a huge percentage of them still went over and played with the guns. So with children, don’t let them play with guns. It’s just not worth it. They can so so easily kill themselves or somebody else with a gun. The thing of teaching children responsibility around a guns, really what it’s doing is making the child responsible for the gun owner. Because the gun owner has been responsible for leaving the gun lying around. And that’s not right for a child to take responsibility for a gun owner leaving a gun lying around.

Are there certain types of gun violence which take precedence over others – like domestic violence, hijackings, etc, etc?
It’s people who know each other, this stranger danger is NOT the majority crime. It’s known, even if it’s known in terms of sitting in the same pub or whatever, there’s a bit of a relationship. And certainly women, most women victims are killed or hurt by licensed gun owners in their homes. Like the Reeva Steenkamp case. 

Bearing in mind that there ISN’T a judgment yet, do you have any concerns about how the high profile Reeva / Oscar case may affect people, whether they will get misconceptions about guns, or is it a good thing in terms of awareness? Have you had many people joining you or asking questions based on the high profile case?

There have been a lot of questions and I think the strength of the case is that it has really opened gun debate. People are really speaking about it, responsibilities of the gun owner, the risks of having a gun in the home and the requirements under the law of a acquiring a gun and b) managing it. 

Is there anything else you would like to chat about?
I guess the thing is if you know the law, you can use the law and you can potentially save a life. 

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