Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School was the latest target in one of the most brutal school shootings the United States has seen. 19 year-old Nikolas Cruz entered the school armed with a semi-automatic rifle, gas mask, multiple magazines of ammunition and smoke grenades. He proceeded to shoot students and teachers in the hallway of the school. He has been charged with 17 counts of premeditated murder, all just a week before his dismissal from the school for “disciplinary reasons”.
South Africa faces its own problems with violence involving weapons at schools. This kind of violence might not take place on as grand a scale as the USA, but it is present and it remains a problem. The National Schools Violence Study (NSVS) undertaken by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention (CJCP) indicates that three in ten secondary learners know of a fellow learner who has brought a weapon to school. National Professional Teacher’s Organisation of South Africa (Naptosa), executive director, Basil Manuel says, “Our children’s lives are peppered with violence, either in the homes or on the streets, as a nation, we have simply not dealt with our violent past and the impact of societal violence on our children.”
Places like schools or churches are targeted because they are associated with a sense of belonging, to each other or to a group while the shooters probably felt out of place and alone. Psychologist, Dr Peter Langman says that school shooters often leave many signs; they talk about their plans with their friends and encourage them to join in. Roger Depue, veteran of the FBI, emphasised that some warning signs carry more weight than others. For instance, a fascination with, and possession of firearms, is more significant than simply being a loner, because possession of firearms gives one the capacity to carry out an attack. However, if a person simply possesses firearms and has no other warning signs, it is unlikely that he represents a significant risk of danger. It is only when multiple indicators is present that the risk becomes more serious.
The case involving Cruz has sparked a worldwide debate over gun laws. In South Africa, gun ownership is not a right but a privilege governed by law which sets criteria for ownership. According to SAPS, the Firearms Control Act (FCA) has a two-fold purpose; to establish a comprehensive and effective system of firearm control and management, and to ensure the effective monitoring and enforcement of legislation as it pertains to the control of firearms. Section 140 of South Africa’s Firearms Control Act gives the Minister of Police the power to declare spaces, such as schools, as Firearm Free Zones (FFZ). The penalties for breaching the specifications are that, if a person brings a gun or ammunition into an FFZ, he or she can be sent to prison for up to 10 years and if a person stores guns or ammunition in a FFZ, he or she can be sent to prison for up to 25 years. This being said, occurrences like that of a student from Mpumalanga who shot and killed a teacher in front of students in 2017, remains a norm and an underreported reality.
Counselling Psychology Professor, Arnold Spokane says, what we need is more people looking, more people checking their instincts for what might be going wrong and then acting on those instincts to try to prevent them. However, the economics we are dealing with makes that a lot more difficult. Instead, we have fewer eyes on the classroom, fewer eyes on the school and neighbourhood. The CJCP highlights the need for combined efforts of school authorities, parents, community leaders and the government. It is necessary for these efforts to be located within a broader framework of an intensive social crime prevention strategy that addresses much of the violence that is beyond the reach of police and which occurs within the home environment.
Illustration: Rhodeen Davies