A series of shocking tavern shootings has highlighted – if ever highlighting was needed – not only South Africa’s crime problem, but specifically the role of guns in the country. Adriaan Basson set the tone with a piece in News24 entitled ‘Tavern shootings: The problem is guns, not booze’. The same platform carried two pieces which probed the relationship between the availability of firearms and murder. Gun Free SA used the shootings as a prompt to call for more comprehensive restrictions, with one of its prominent activists, former police commander Jeremy Vearey, calling for the return of specialised firearms units and more controls on licensing. ‘There are just too many firearms out there that widen the pool for potential criminal exploitation,’ he said.
This must have been well received by the Minister of Police, Bheki Cele, who has made it clear that he is in favour of removing all firearms from civilian hands. A Bill to push that agenda – notably, by removing the ability to own a firearm for self-defence – surfaced last year, although its passage has been halted pending further consideration. At least for now.
On the other side, there was a significant response on social media denying that this was a gun issue. Basson came in for particular criticism, some of it rather personal (as on the YouTube channel Morning Shot), and some taking aim at his arguments.
The place of firearms in South African society has been a perennial debate. Its origins predate democracy. It is also a heated one, and one in which the various parties tend to talk past rather than to one another. This is deeply unfortunate, since the issue is an important one. And rather than argue about whose arguments are better – whose arguments are right – perhaps we’d do well to step back and think carefully about how these arguments are made.
First, guns are a legitimate topic of debate. The claim that ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’ is accurate as far as it goes, but is insufficient. Many things that we interact with – pets, chemicals, motor vehicles etc – can be dangerous. Firearms are specifically made to inflict damage, and to kill. That is inherent in the design. There is nothing scandalous in this, but it calls for caution in dealing with them. (Indeed, any gun enthusiast understands ‘gun safety’ as a foundational principle.) The use of firearms in crime is intuitively something that needs to be factored into any consideration of crime in general. To do so is not to be a ‘Soros dupe’ (or whatever other Bond-style villain the imagination may conceive).
Second, some introspection and humility would not be misplaced by all involved. What is it that this ‘debate’ is really about? Is it about violence or about demonising guns? I remember reading somewhere (and I must admit that I can’t find the source now) that former police commissioner Jackie Selebi snapped at Parliamentarians that he couldn’t understand why there was even a discussion about getting rid of a ‘bad thing’ from society.
Inasmuch as firearm enthusiasts must accept that guns are a legitimate topic of debate, so must gun-control advocates accept that firearm enthusiasm is not a pathology. Too often, this is how it is presented. As Rebecca Davis once memorably put it: ‘I could never, ever work in anti-gun activism because I find the middle-aged white men of the pro-gun lobby so unpleasant and enraging.’ Gun Free South Africa’s patron Bishop Emeritus Peter Storey penned a piece for the Daily Maverick taking this line, entitled ‘Should 3% of the population call the (gun)shots?’ There are numerous grounds for which one might want or need a firearm. Hunting is a venerable pastime, and target shooting is an Olympic sport. In a society as violent as South Africa, and where law enforcement is so compromised, the argument for an effective means to protect oneself is a powerful one indeed – and the motivation behind doing so entirely understandable.
Following from this, any sort of meaningful debate would require accepting the bona fides of one’s opponent.
Third, any sensible debate has to be based on evidence. Appeals to ideology, emotion, the stigmatisation of one’s opponents or bald assertions – try ‘suck my Glock!’ or ‘Gun control works!’ – are very poor substitutes.
Arguably more than anything, this means identifying the exact terms of any evidence presented. A particular pitfall in this field is the presentation of data on ‘gun deaths’. This is such an intuitively prominent part of the ‘debate’ around gun politics that it does not receive the attention it deserves.
Here is a teaser of what I’m talking about. The relationship between firearms and violence has probably been studied more intensely in the United States than anywhere else. Guns are, after all, a major civil rights issue there. And being a federal system, different jurisdictions have different approaches to gun ownership and gun control. It’s easy to find arguments about the correlation – or lack thereof – between guns and violence.
Let’s look at this. Picturesque Wyoming has among the highest rates of firearm ownership of any state in the US – some 60% of households have at least one firearm (second only to neighbouring Montana). So, it’s not surprising when it features prominently in a CNN article entitled, ‘States with the most gun violence share one trait’. The trait, of course, was permissive gun laws and lots of guns. Wyoming’s firearm death rate – according to this article – stood at 25.9 per 100 000. Clearly, Wyoming is an apocalyptic dystopia. Even by the standards of the US (intentional homicide in the country as a whole is around 6,5) this is dreadful. It’s not even that far behind South Africa’s 33,5. Case closed.
But look a little closer. ‘Gun deaths’ or ‘firearm mortality’ can include a number of things: murder, suicides, accidents and lives taken in legitimate self-defence. Those responsible may range from contract killers to police officers performing their duties.
In fact, Wyoming’s murder rate is only 2.2 per 100 000. Its firearm murder rate is 1.6 (Wyomingites use things in addition to firearms to commit murder). Both of these figures place it near the bottom of the respective rankings. Wyoming is in this respect one of the safest jurisdictions in the US. It would not be too far above the murder rates of European countries. So, what’s going on? Essentially, suicide. Suicides account for well over half of gun deaths in the US, and Wyoming has an above average level of suicide; when it takes place, a firearm is the means of choice.
No one should be indifferent to suicide; but to confuse (or misrepresent) these things as somehow being coterminous with violent crime is inaccurate if not dishonest.
Incidentally, Montana, Idaho, and North and South Dakota also show an inverse relationship between the rate of gun ownership and the rate of murder – and firearm murder.
But before gun rights activists celebrate victory, it’s worth noting that Hawaii and Rhode Island are among the least armed states, and can claim among the lowest rates of firearm homicide (Hawaii the lowest), as well as in murder overall. Alaska and Mississippi have both high rates of gun ownership as well as murder and firearm homicide. Louisiana, with the highest rate of firearm homicide (9.3 per 100 000), has a gun ownership rate of around 52% of households.
One could make similar points about the relationship between gun ownership, gun control and gun violence the world over. There is an intriguing piece online (from 2018) which worked up a set of correlations from across the US and the world. Entitled ‘Everybody’s Lying About the Link Between Gun Ownership and Homicide’, it argues for the following bold claim: ‘There is no clear correlation whatsoever between gun ownership rate and gun homicide rate. Not within the USA. Not regionally. Not internationally. Not among peaceful societies. Not among violent ones. Gun ownership doesn’t make us safer. It doesn’t make us less safe. A bivariate correlation simply isn’t there. It is blatantly not-there. It is so tremendously not-there that the “not-there-ness” of it alone should be a huge news story.’
I refer to this not as an unambiguous endorsement of the argument, but because it shows the complexities involved.
The point here is that simple correlations and univariate explanations do not provide a great deal of evidence for guiding gun policy. They may be useful for feeding a narrative, but it can only complicate the search for solutions; solutions that require considering factors in addition to firearms – assuming, of course, that we can articulate the solutions we want honestly.
Fourth, beware of focusing on the sensational. Mass shootings are newsworthy precisely because they are atypical – even for a country as scarred and jaded as South Africa. Even in the US, the seemingly ubiquitous ‘school shootings’ account for a small fraction of violent crime, or for murder. They are also fairly rare outside the US. South Africa has not experienced – as far as I can establish – a Columbine-style massacre.
To deal with phenomena means to recognise them for what they are, not what might stimulate our interest or repulse our senses.
And this introduces the fifth point, of especial concern for South Africans. We do not live in the US, yet if I might appropriate a phrase from a British writer, we often conduct this discussion in an American accent. This is not to say that its experience is not useful – readers will note that I have used data from the US to demonstrate a point about the manipulation of evidence. But it is different. There is no ‘right to bear arms’ in South Africa’s constitution, and many of us lack sufficient understanding of that country’s social arrangements to comment knowledgeably on it.
Equally, those who might dismiss firearms advocates as parroting the talking points of American right-wingers (an allegation made against the Institute of Race Relations) should remember that this is in fact a homegrown issue, with a local context.
Nor, by the way, do we live in Japan. Adriaan Basson wondered why we could not emulate Japan’s gun control regime. The answer is that we are a fundamentally different society and have not taken the approach to guns that Japan has done since the late 16th Century, nor do we have the conjunction of culture, geography and administrative efficiency.
Our solutions, if we can find them, will need to be worked out according to our own circumstances.
Guns and their place in South Africa are an important issue of public policy, but the tenor of ‘debate’ would not suggest so. It’s time to treat it seriously.