SA should learn from the mis­takes of the US and curb the ex­ist­ing black mar­ket for guns…

Finweek English Edition - - Openers - BY SIZWEKAZI JEKWA sizwekazij@fin­

WHEN I HEARD ABOUT the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings last week, I was sud­denly less than en­thu­si­as­tic about my pend­ing visit to Columbia Univer­sity next month. I mean, how can I not be a lit­tle bit alarmed when school shoot­ings of that na­ture be­come reg­u­lar oc­cur­rences in the United States? Ev­ery­one re­mem­bers the Columbine High school shoot­ings on 20 April 1999, when two stu­dents killed 12 fel­low stu­dents and a teacher.

But that was just an­other of many shoot­ings that oc­cur in schools on a reg­u­lar ba­sis in the US. For ex­am­ple, since 1996 there have been 38 sep­a­rate school shoot­ings in the US at a rate of about three a year.

How­ever, the Vir­ginia Tech was with­out ques­tion the worst ever. It re­sulted in the death of 33 peo­ple, in­clud­ing the gun­man, who also in­jured 15 other stu­dents.

The scary part is that ev­ery­one in the US keeps ask­ing: “How could it have hap­pened?” Well, one of their cit­i­zens had a well-ar­tic­u­lated an­swer eight years ago. World- fa­mous in­de­pen­dent singer/ song­writer Ani Difranco de­scribed the sit­u­a­tion in the US and the gun-cri­sis tak­ing place there im­pec­ca­bly in her 1999 ti­tle track called To the Teeth. She wrote: The sun set­ting on the cen­tury And we are armed to the teeth. We’re all work­ing to­gether now To make out lives mer­ci­fully brief. And school kids keep try­ing to teach us, What guns are all about – Con­fuse lib­erty with weaponry and watch our kids act it out. And ev­ery year now like Christ­mas, Some boy gets the milk-fed sub­ur­ban blues. Reaches for the avail­able arse­nal And saun­ters off to make the news. Un­de­ni­ably, there’s a se­ri­ous is­sue with gun con­trol in the US and a few in­tel­li­gent souls there can see it. But the prob­lem is that gun lob­by­ists such as the Na­tional Ri­fle As­so­ci­a­tion (NRA) are too pow­er­ful. Gun man­u­fac­tur­ers work hard to per­pet­u­ate the myth that the pro­lif­er­a­tion of guns is in no way con­nected with gun vi­o­lence in the US. Through var­i­ous forms of pro­pa­ganda they’ve some­how man­aged to con­vince the ma­jor­ity of the Amer­i­can pub­lic that easy ac­cess to firearms is a sign of their free­dom and a trea­sured right, not a source of suf­fer­ing or sense­less killing.

In ad­di­tion, the NRA has fought hard to sever the con­nec­tion be­tween in­ci­dents such as that at Vir­ginia Tech and the pro­lif­er­a­tion of guns in the US, where more than 2m peo­ple own guns.

But it isn’t as if South Africa doesn’t have prob­lems of its own with re­gard to firearms. Arms pro­lif­er­a­tion is rife here too. I sup­pose that’s why the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings struck a chord, be­cause South Africans are be­gin­ning to won­der if the day will come when some men­tally im­bal­anced HIV pos­i­tive stu­dent goes “postal” with an au­to­matic weapon on the cam­pus at Wits. But so far the only peo­ple us­ing weapons to kill peo­ple in SA ap­pear to be crim­i­nals and not stu­dents… for now.

Nev­er­the­less, the is­sue of gun con­trol is some­thing that re­quires fur­ther in­spec­tion. Al­though SA has long been re­garded as a leader in the crack­down on small arms pro­lif­er­a­tion – and we have strong laws and poli­cies in place – we con­tinue to fall short of our goals. De­spite the fact that SA law de­mands some of the world’s most strin­gent re­quire­ments be­fore any­one can buy a firearm legally – in to­tal con­trast to the US, where all you seem to need is a driver’s li­cence to buy a gun at your lo­cal su­per­mar­ket – the black mar­ket for arms in SA is still buoy­ant.

The re­cent reve­la­tion about Arm­scor’s il­le­gal sale of mil­lions of rounds of 7.62mm and 5.56mm am­mu­ni­tion (used in AK47 and R-5 ri­fles) to In­dus­trie Spreew­erk Lubben in Ger­many has seen the US mar­ket flooded with mil­i­tary and po­lice sur- plus am­mu­ni­tion from SA. That’s in di­rect con­flict with the SA Gov­ern­ment’s arms pol­icy, which only al­lows gov­ern­ment-to­gov­ern­ment sales and not sales to private com­pa­nies.

To add in­sult to in­jury, the foren­sic re­port that un­cov­ered the am­mu­ni­tion sales – made in Novem­ber 2005 by First Con­sult­ing – re­vealed var­i­ous breaches in pro­ce­dure and even a na­tional se­cu­rity breach in the sale of in­fantry as­sault ve­hi­cles.

What’s truly dis­turb­ing is that this in­for­ma­tion is only now be­ing re­vealed to the pub­lic – two years af­ter the re­port – and that the three of­fi­cials sus­pended dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion have since been re­in­stated.

The long and short of it is that as much as we like to point fin­gers at the US for its lack of gun con­trol, we as South Africans are in­di­rectly con­tribut­ing to in­ci­dents like the Vir­ginia Tech shoot­ings if we al­low what hap­pened at Arm­scor to con­tinue un­abated.

Gov­ern­ments must make a de­ter­mined ef­fort to curb the flow of arms into the black mar­ket, not just over­seas but within its own borders. Any­one liv­ing in a town­ship in SA will tell you how easy it is to buy a gun at min­i­mal cost.

There’s no sense kid­ding our­selves about this is­sue be­cause guns are de­signed with just one func­tion in mind: to kill… quickly and ef­fi­ciently.

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