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.

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