We need stricter, broader gun laws
Philip Alpers is adjunct associate professor at the Sydney School of Public Health, University of Sydney. He is a policy analyst in the public health effects of gun violence and small arms proliferation, his website GunPolicy.org, compares armed
violence, firearm injury prevention and gun law across
350 jurisdictions world-wide. DECADE ago, South Africa was seen as a leader in the global trend to reduce gun death. Yet despite encouraging early results, for all we know, this momentum might have levelled out or even reversed.
Among 224 jurisdictions surveyed by University of Sydney researchers, almost every country which updated its firearm legislation this century – South Africa included – did so in favour of gun control. Only the US and Canada now allow firearm owners to be less accountable for the weapons they own and carry.
Following implementation of the Firearms Control Act 2000, South Africa’s success in riding the international tide of armed violence reduction seemed to speak for itself. Take a look at your country’s declining trend in gun homicide from 1998 to 2007. As-yet-unpublished Medical Research Council data could soon show that this trend continued through 2009.
Now, notice something else. Your six most recent statistical years are simply blank. National public health and police data which would allow researchers, politicians and the public to gauge trends since 2007 has not been published. Policymakers are left with spotty comparisons such as this: Seven years ago, South Africa’s rate of gun homicide was still many times higher than most G7+5 nations.
Both public health and justice sector reporting of firearm-related mortality across Africa is erratic, unreliable or nonexistent. But while the continent’s most progressive democracy once published good gun death data, now it does not. In such a factual vacuum, evidence-based policy solutions must remain elusive, while knee-jerk reactions prevail.
A fine example came in a recent statement from South African Football Association president Danny Jordaan, launching a campaign in memory of Senzo Meyiwa.
“We need to mop up all illegal guns and destroy them, hand in all illegal guns,” urged Jordaan.
Yet around the world, such narrowly limited reactions have shown to have failed. Almost without exception, the weapons collected are rubbish, while criminals, domestic abusers and those who are for the time being law-abiding gun owners – such as Oscar Pistorius – hold on to the weapons they cherish.
Leading researchers have referred to gun amnesty and buyback campaigns of such limited focus as “a triumph of wishful thinking over all the available evidence”,
Aand “the programme that is best-known to be ineffective” in reducing firearm violence.
Targeting just “illegal guns” is akin to focusing only on “illegal cars” to reduce the road toll. As with cars, every factory-made crime gun began its life as a lawfully manufactured firearm, held by its legal owner. From Pistorius to Meyiwa – and in thousands more gun homicides each year in South Africa – the firearm was owned by, stolen or otherwise leaked from an owner who was legally entitled to possess it.
The solution? Start not at the most intractable end of the problem, but at the source where records are kept. To reduce all forms of gun injury in a single programme successful countries have reduced the overall availability of both legal and illegal firearms, especially handguns.
Democracies which have dramatically reduced civilian possession of firearms include Australia, which in recent years bought back and destroyed a million privately owned guns or one-third of the country’s civilian arsenal. In the years that followed, the risk of an Australian dying by gunshot fell more than 50 percent and stayed there. The most comprehensive impact study found Australia nearly halved its number of gun-owning households, and by destroying firearms on such a scale, saved itself 200 deaths by gunshot.
Other countries have seen similar results. After the Dunblane Primary School handgun massacre in 1996, the UK banned pistols and revolvers and tightened its restrictions on long guns.
In 2011, there were only 38 gun homicides among a population of 63 million.
In Brazil, gun law reform and a massive programme of gun buybacks reversed an upward gun crime trend – saving 24 000 lives in four years, according to the Ministry of Health. After conducting its own national gun amnesty and destruction programme, Argentina reported similar results.
All these national programmes set out to reduce the country’s entire stock of privately held firearms – the weapons that could at any time, subject to theft or accident, inebriation or anger, become crime guns.
The good news is that we already know how to tackle the global epidemic of gun death. At the risk of putting it too simply, to public health practitioners, the gun is to gun violence as the mosquito is to malaria. Beliefs and fears aside, death and injury by gunshot can be as amenable to public health intervention as were the road toll, drunk driving, tobacco-related disease and curbing the spread of HIV/Aids.
Of course, there will be obstructions, but these are nothing new to public health. An industry and its self-interest groups focused on denial, the propagation of fear and quasi-religious objections – we’ve seen it all before. But with gun violence, as with HIV/Aids, waste-of-time notions like evil, sin, blame and retribution could with time be sluiced away to allow proven public health procedures.
After collecting and publishing the basic evidence on which to plan a concerted national public health intervention, then spending a small fraction of the cost of losing 8 000 South Africans to armed violence each year, a gun injury prevention programme could save lives as effectively as restricting access to explosives and mandating child-safe lids on poison bottles.
DISARMING: Unless we get tough on reform, more will die like Senzo Meyiwa, says the writer.