Crime and pun­ish­ment in our coun­try

The Star Early Edition - - OPINION & ANALYSIS - RICH MKHONDO

Rich Mkhondo runs The Me­dia and Writ­ers Firm (www.me­di­aand­writ­ers­firm.com),

a con­tent de­vel­op­ment and rep­u­ta­tion man­age­ment agency

THERE are cer­tain sub­jects – the death penalty, abor­tion and gun con­trol – that rat­tle peo­ple’s cages. If you speak out on them, you will hear from peo­ple who don’t agree with you.

Pre­dictably, the killing of Bafana Bafana cap­tain and Or­lando Pi­rates keeper, Senzo Meyiwa, has re-en­er­gised the de­bate on gun con­trol.

In­deed, pro- and anti-gun con­trollers have im­mersed them­selves in emo­tion and self-right­eous­ness.

After all, while other weapons – knives, meat cleavers, what­ever – may be at the dis­posal of any­one in­tent on tak­ing another per­son’s life, guns cer­tainly make it so much eas­ier and quicker.

If events of the past few weeks didn’t im­pel law­mak­ers, in­clud­ing our Po­lice Min­is­ter Nathi Nh­leko and South African Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion pres­i­dent, Danny Jor­daan, to take se­ri­ous steps on the gun con­trol front, per­haps noth­ing would have.

As hor­ri­fy­ing and sad as what hap­pened to Meyiwa is, it’s the tip of the ice­berg in gun vi­o­lence. Ac­cord­ing to fig­ures re­leased by the po­lice, more than 16 000 peo­ple were mur­dered last year. Gun Free SA claims 42 per­cent of those mur­ders in­volved guns. Guns are also used in sui­cides, homi­cides and un­in­ten­tional shoot­ings.

We all agree that one of the things that sep­a­rates this coun­try from oth­ers is its easy ac­cess to firearms. It’s that fac­tor that ren­ders pos­si­ble sick­en­ing in­ci­dents like Meyiwa’s killing so it’s time thought­ful peo­ple ac­knowl­edge that this na­tion’s stand­ing as one of the world’s most vi­o­lent has to be ad­dressed. The tight­en­ing of gun laws is long over­due.

As Meyiwa’s death fades, gun rights ad­vo­cates will con­tinue ar­gu­ing that the prob­lem isn’t the weapons but the few peo­ple mis­us­ing them.

But we should be aim­ing to pre­vent our cit­i­zens from be­com­ing in­volved with vi­o­lent crime at all.

Let’s look at the ar­gu­ments by both sides.

Sup­port­ers of tighter gun con­trol mea­sures ar­gue the more guns you find out there, the greater chance they’ll be used in some aw­ful man­ner.

On its web­site, Gun Free SA re­ports: “Gun-re­lated killings are not in­dis­crim­i­nate acts of chance that ran­domly af­fect peo­ple. There is a sim­ple cause and ef­fect – the pres­ence of a gun puts ev­ery­one at risk – whether it is used for self-in­jury such as in sui­cide, un­in­ten­tion­ally in an ac­ci­dent, or in cases of fam­ily vi­o­lence.

“For many South Africans, hav­ing a gun in the home is about pro­tect­ing them­selves against the stranger in­truder, but data in South Africa and else­where shows that you are four times more likely to have a gun used against you than to be able to use it suc­cess­fully in self-de­fence.”

In this fire­fight, gun own­ers are armed with rea­son and the con­sti­tu­tional right to own prop­erty. They seek to pro­tect some­thing tan­gi­ble: the right to bear arms, and with it, the abil­ity to de­fend them­selves, if nec­es­sary, through their own ef­forts.

Sup­port­ers of gun own­er­ship say guns make them safer. They say as gun own­er­ship rises, vi­o­lent crime drops.

They say when a cit­i­zen is armed, they are less likely to be at­tacked. And when they are at­tacked, guns tilt the odds in their favour.

There­fore, they say if politi­cians want to im­press the pop­u­lace, to show how con­cerned they are about the il­le­gal use of guns, let them put some teeth into the pun­ish­ment and not pun­ish the in­no­cent lawabid­ing cit­i­zen who com­plies with the gun laws cur­rently in place.

The anti-gun lobby says too many guns are killing too many peo­ple.

No other in­dus­tri­alised so­ci­ety tol­er­ates such a sit­u­a­tion, even those who value lib­erty as much as we do.

The anti-gun crowd says they are more than will­ing to give up their right to bear arms, es­pe­cially if they can deny that right to ev­ery­one else.

Gun-con­trol utopi­ans just want the nasty things to go away.

Once law-abid­ing cit­i­zens have sur­ren­dered their guns, th­ese wish­ful thinkers sin­cerely hope crim­i­nals will be dis­armed as well. Hop­ing tends to be a ma­jor el­e­ment of their pub­lic-pol­icy agenda.

They crave new laws and reg­u­la­tions as es­poused by our po­lice min­is­ter and his pol­icy writ­ers to re­duce risk and make us all safer. For them, the prom­ise of safety trumps free­dom.

If guns were out­lawed to­mor­row, of course, thugs would still have their guns. But over time, 20 years maybe, they’d grad­u­ally be con­fis­cated, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to a gun-free so­ci­ety, where our chil­dren and their chil­dren will live in safe com­mu­ni­ties.

The al­ter­na­tive to suf­fer­ing through such a sup­ply dry-up pe­riod is to suf­fer in­creas­ingly and per­pet­u­ally from gun pro­lif­er­a­tion with­out let-up. Which is the greater evil? The South African Gun Own­ers As­so­ci­a­tion says: “We must stop blam­ing in­stru­ments of crime.

“De­spite the car­nage on our roads, no one calls for the ban­ning of ve­hi­cles; de­spite the many drown­ings, no one calls for the ban­ning of swimming pools; and so I could carry on.

“Crim­i­nals will al­ways ob­tain guns or what­ever else to com­mit their atroc­i­ties with, while the dis­arm­ing of the law-abid­ing will merely cause them to be­come eas­ier tar­gets.”

But tack­ling gun crime is a com­plex, multi-faceted prob­lem that needs ad­dress­ing in a num­ber of ways, in­clud­ing the old chest­nuts of parenting, ed­u­ca­tion and em­ploy­ment.

The ma­jor ques­tions are: How do stricter gun laws ad­dress the so­cial and cul­tural con­di­tions at the heart of the myr­iad prob­lems that con­trib­ute to vi­o­lence?

Is stricter gun con­trol go­ing to force par­ents to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their chil­dren? Is stricter gun con­trol go­ing to en­lighten those prone to vi­o­lence to the value of hu­man life?

Will we all start ex­pect­ing more from hu­man be­ings or con­tinue to lower our stan­dards? Will stricter gun laws force peo­ple to take re­spon­si­bil­ity for their des­tinies or will we con­tinue with this “got a prob­lem; make a law” type of gov­ern­ment?

Gun vi­o­lence is a symp­tom of un­der­ly­ing so­cial in­jus­tices, poverty, pow­er­less­ness and despair. We must ad­dress the in­equal­ity in our so­ci­ety.

Ul­ti­mately, a civilised so­ci­ety must have strict gun laws and guide­lines for gun us­age if it is to have a mod­icum of do­mes­tic tran­quil­lity of the kind en­joyed in rel­a­tively crime-free democ­ra­cies.

Given our his­tory of anti-apartheid strug­gle, law­less­ness, pro­lif­er­a­tion of guns, poverty and help­less­ness this will not come eas­ily. It can’t be done rad­i­cally. It will prob­a­bly take one, maybe two gen­er­a­tions.

Pass­ing laws is a sym­bolic – purely sym­bolic – move in that di­rec­tion. Any real jus­ti­fi­ca­tion should be to re­duce crime and de­sen­si­tise the pub­lic to the reg­u­la­tion of weapons.

Would more and stricter gun con­trol laws have an im­pact? Ab­so­lutely – on peo­ple who obey laws. But they aren’t the peo­ple who shoot peo­ple at ran­dom dur­ing car hi­jack­ings and other rob­beries or in­vade phone stores in our malls let alone em­bark on cash heists.

Those peo­ple will get firearms no mat­ter how stiff the laws are. They’ll steal them, buy them on the street. Vi­o­lent crim­i­nals will al­ways have weapons.

As long as both the law-abid­ing pop­u­la­tion and the crim­i­nal classes doubt that se­ri­ous crime leads to se­ri­ous pun­ish­ment, at­tempts at se­ri­ous gun con­trol will prove fu­tile.

PIC­TURE: MICHAEL WALKER

BE­SIEGED: The writer says stricter gun laws will be mean­ing­less un­til there’s a greater like­li­hood of of­fend­ers be­ing pun­ished.

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