It’s a scene that has become all too familiar in recent months – it might be a CNN blast on your phone or a radio show interrupting its broadcast to bring you the breaking news: another shooting massacre has occurred in the USA.

This week, Perdeby explores the contentious issue of gun control currently raging in the USA and consider whether or not it has been effective in South Africa.

According to the Firearm and Injury Center at Penn, an average of 32 300 people in the USA die every year as a result of firearm-related incidents. Therefore, it’s not difficult to understand why Americans (and the rest of the world) consider gun violence to be a serious social concern.

In the USA, gun ownership is considered a civil right. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”., a leading news site based on US and world polls, reports that as of 2011, approximately 47% of American adults are in possession of a gun in their home or elsewhere on their property.

Even after the tragic shooting and killing of 20 first-grade pupils and six adult staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut in December last year, the majority of Americans still oppose stricter laws governing gun ownership.

“The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” said Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president and CEO of the National Rifle Association (NRA) shortly after the attack. The NRA is spearheading the campaign that opposes any form of gun control in the country.

While the main reason cited by Americans (and South Africans) for owning a gun is self-defence, numerous studies have shown that owning a gun increases the chances of gun-related deaths. The question remains whether or not regulation of ownership is a successful way to solve the problem.

According to an article by Geoffrey York published in The Globe and Mail last week, approximately 12% of South Africans own guns (whether these have been legally obtained or not remains unknown). In South Africa, owning a gun is not a given right. Here, the Firearm Control Act of 2000 along with amendments made in 2004 ensure that the possession of a firearm is not a free-for-all.

The process involves actively applying for a gun licence and passing a competency test. Other factors also play a major role in the decision, such as having a background check done, an inspection of an applicant’s premises to ensure that they have adequate safe-keeping facilities and also, sufficient motivation for the need of a firearm.

A study from the University of Philadelphia found that individuals in possession of firearms are 4.5 times more likely to be shot and 4.2 times more likely to be killed as opposed to those who do not own a gun. In addition to this, studies conducted in 2008 by Arthur Kellermann and Matthew Miller published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that owning a gun at home increased the risk of suicide for all of those living there. A 2011 review by David Hemenway published in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine confirms these findings. The reason, of course, being attributed to the fact that firearms in homes are too easily accessible, especially in the USA where there are no laws governing this.

However, just because South Africa has stricter gun laws, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is no gun violence. York suggests that in South Africa, criminals assume that their victims own guns, so once they’ve broken into a house, their first concern is to find the owner’s gun.

York maintains that guns are the cause of death in more than half of all reported murders in SA. He reveals that guns are used in 77% of house robberies and 87% of business robberies.

Despite these findings, spokesperson for the Ministry of Police Zweli Mnisi maintains that amendments made to the Firearm Control Act in 2004 have yielded positive results. In fact, reported last year that gun crime in South Africa has decreased by 21%. “Tougher controls on the ownership, possession and use of firearms have seen a marked reduction in the incidence of gun-related crime in recent years,” Mnisi says. “Gun control is accordingly at the heart of the ministry’s strategy to combat violent crime,” he continues.

However, critics have been quick to respond. “There is no way a linkage can be formed between the implementation of the Firearms Control Act and its relationship to any specific crime,” says South African Gunowners’ Association’s spokesperson Martin Hood.

Hood argues that there is a no evidence to suggest that the amendments made in 2004 have had any effect on gun crimes since the findings do not show what weapons were used in what crimes.

But Gun Free South Africa, along with the Medical Research Council (MRC), provided evidence to suggest that South Africa’s gun laws save the lives of approximately 800 women a year. Dr Naeemah Abrahams, deputy director at the MRC’s Gender and Health Research Unit, presented findings gathered from national mortuaries that show the number of women shot and killed decreased from 32% in 1999 to 17% in 2009, while other causes of death such as stabbing and strangulation remained the same.

President Obama made it clear in his State of the Union Address last week that he will continue to fight for gun control. Perhaps by following in South Africa’s footsteps, the USA could produce similar results. For now, all that is certain is that despite the many other means of violence, guns increase the risk for danger in any given situation, whether it is intentional or not.

Photo: Eleanor Harding

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