A Critical Analysis of Firearm Control in Post-Apartheid SA

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A Critical Analysis of Firearm Control in Post-Apartheid SA

Postby GOSA » Wed, 2008-03-12 11:51

A Critical Analysis of Firearm Control in Post-Apartheid South Africa - Sheila Coxford, UCT


South Africa is considered to be one of the most violent societies on earth. Of all countries reporting to Interpol in 1995, South Africa emerged as having the third highest murder rate in the world.

Daily, South Africans are bombarded with horror stories of gang warfare in Manenburg, taxi shoot-outs in Khayelitsha, bomb blasts in and around shopping malls and restaurants, not to mention the routine violence that forms a part of every day life for many. Whilst media portrayal may in some instances be over-sensationalised, the picture that emerges is one of a society brutalised by violence and ravaged by crime.

Despite the large number of crimes that go unreported, even in terms of reported crimes and offences, the incidence of crime in South Africa vastly exceeds the world average. However, it is not crime levels per se, but rather the level of violence that accompanies crime that is the cause of gravest concern.

One important feature of crime in South Africa is the prevalent abuse of firearms and the magnitude of gun violence associated with crime and conflict. In 1998 alone, 12 298 individuals were murdered with a firearm (constituting 49 percent of all murders) and 74 854 robberies (comprising 84 percent of all serious robberies) were committed with a firearm.

According to the United Nations International Study on Firearm Regulation, of sixty-nine countries' surveyed. South Africa has the second highest level of gun murders after Columbia.

Being one of the most serious challenges facing the South African government, the prevention of crime has been declared a national priority. In an attempt to provide a comprehensive framework under which crime prevention efforts could be co-ordinated, the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS) was adopted in 1996. The NCPS pointed to the easy accessibility of firearms as a major contributor to violent crime. It identified both legal and illegal weapons as potential sources of criminal arms.

Historically, legal gun ownership in South Africa has been the sole preserve of the white minority. However, subsequent to democratisation in 1994, the ownership of firearms has increased amongst the black population from 2 to 60 percent. In the last five years the Central Firearms Registry has received between eighteen and twenty thousand firearm licence applications per month, indicating that the domestic demand for arms continues.

Concern that licensed firearms contribute to high levels of violence in South Africa, resulted in the tabling of the Firearms Control Bill B34 - 2000 in an attempt to implement stricter control over legally owned firearms. The Bill was passed by the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces on 12/10/2000 and awaiting only the signature of the President before being enacted.

Debates on gun violence and gun control have flourished in other countries for decades and spawned great volumes of literature, most notably in the U.S.A. However, in South Africa it is only in the last decade that the debate has come to the fore.

In reality, firearm control is not an all or nothing policy. There is a range of various potential control mechanisms including restrictions on certain types of firearms, most commonly handguns; mandatory "cooling off periods" before a firearm can be acquired, background checks on prospective firearm owners, stricter licensing procedures, total prohibition on civilian firearm ownership etc. Each of these mechanisms can be situated somewhere along a continuum of relative stringency of control they afford the governing body. The gun control controversy is not essentially about whether guns should be regulated or not, but the degree to which gun possession should be restricted.

Despite this, the intensity of emotion surrounding issues of firearm violence, ownership and control, tends to result in a glossing over of the nuances of various positions. Typically the gun control debate generates two distinct opposing camps (the "gun control / prohibitionist lobby" and the "gun lobby / anti-gun control lobby") and undermines the development of a centrist consensus. On the one side there are those who would permit the majority of law abiding adults to legally possess firearms, with gun ownership prohibited only among non-adults and those prone to violence, including offenders, the mentally ill and substance abusers. On the other side there are those who would completely prohibit private firearm ownership. Given that the former kind of regulation has been common in many Western countries for years and that the alleged correlation between civilian owned firearms and criminal violence remains unproven, the burden of proof is often seen to lie with those advocating more restrictive policies.

The Firearms Control Bill is situated squarely in the latter camp. Despite the fact that at this stage civilian gun ownership is not completely prohibited, the Bill is applauded as a move towards much greater control over firearms in South Africa. Complete prohibition is seen as desirable but politically unfeasible at this point in time.

This dissertation attempts to evaluate the hypothesis that the implementation of a policy of stringent firearm control in South Africa will significantly decrease levels of violent crime. Stringent gun control as a distinctive policy position will come under scrutiny, rather than the merits and demerits of specific clauses of the Firearms Control Bill.

I intend to examine whether or not firearm control, if effectively implemented, is likely to decrease levels of violent crime in South Africa. This assessment will take place on two levels. First, I will attempt to establish whether, given the specific dynamics of violent crime in South Africa, firearm control is a fitting response to the problem. Second, on a more theoretical level, I will attempt to evaluate the efficacy of firearm control as a policy in general.

Chapter 2 reviews literature pertinent to the current gun control debate. It draws on some of the relevant international literature, predominantly from the United States, as well as indigenous research.

Chapter 3 dis-aggregates violent crime statistics and examines the defining features of different types of violent crime, with a special focus on crimes routinely perpetrated with a firearm. The main aim of this chapter is to establish with some degree of precision, the exact nature of the problem that the policy of firearm control attempts to address.

Chapter 4 is concerned with the specifics of the government's policy response to the problem of violent crime. Relevant aspects of The National Crime Prevention Strategy are outlined, providing the context to the adoption of a policy of strict gun control. The perceived shortcomings of the current Arms and ammunition Act are covered briefly, followed by a more detailed look at relevant clauses of the Firearms Control Bill.

Chapter 5 explores the prospects of a decrease occurring in the incidence of murder, attempted murder and robbery, as a result of the implementation of strict firearm control. In the course of this analysis, chapter 5 examines the assertion that violent encounters involving firearms are more deadly than those involving other weapons.

Chapters 6 to 8 are concerned with three of the most important tenets of the argument for strict gun control. These chapters attempt to evaluate the merits of these claims by examining the available evidence in order to determine whether stringent gun control measures are likely to have the desired effect.

Chapter 6 examines one of the primary claims of the argument for stringent control of civilian owned firearms, namely that firearms licensed to civilians fuel supplies of illicit arms as they are frequently lost or stolen thereby ending up in criminal hands. The potential sources of illicit arms are considered including civilian owned firearms, state owned weapons, weapons smuggling and the illegal arms trade, private security companies and home-made firearms.

Chapter 7 considers the pivotal issue of defensive gun use. Firearms can potentially be used both to perpetrate a violent crime and to prevent the perpetration of crime. This chapter examines the effectiveness of firearms in civilian hands as a deterrent to violent crime as well as the prevalence of defensive gun use.

Chapter 8 examines the most basic presupposition of the argument for restrictive gun control and investigates whether a positive correlation between the prevalence of civilian gun ownership and the incidence of violent crime can be empirically demonstrated.

Chapter 9 concludes that firearm control is most likely to simultaneously inhibit and exacerbate violent crime in South Africa. However, on the basis of the available evidence, it appears that the net effect could be an increase rather than a decrease in the incidence of violent crime.

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