Critical analysis (iv) Substitution & Differential letha

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Critical analysis (iv) Substitution & Differential letha

Postby Martin_tu » Sun, 2006-05-28 13:15


The case for strict firearm control measures hinges on the assertion that decreasing the general availability of firearms (and thus supposedly decreasing the availability of guns to criminals or potential criminals) will decrease the incidence of violent crime- As Zimring and Hawkins assert "fewer guns would mean fewer deaths." 1

It is clearly apparent that if there were absolutely no guns in society at all, then no crimes could be perpetrated with them. However, an extensive range of other types of weaponry would remain. The aim is not merely to diminish firearm- related crime, but to reduce the incidence of violent crime as a whole.

Thus, apart from the obvious question of whether firearm legislation can actually decrease the availability of firearms to criminals, the issue remains whether those who commit murders and robberies with firearms would merely substitute another weapon should the availability of firearms decrease. This is termed the substitution effect.

If it can be demonstrated that those that previously killed and robbed with a firearm would have refrained from these activities if access to a firearm had been denied, 2 then strict gun control would be an effective policy response. However, if offenders substituted other weapons in the place of firearms, one would need to consider the impact of this substitution on injuries and fatalities. The answer to this question depends largely on the matter of criminal motivation and the differential lethality of weapons.3

1 F. Zimring and G. Hawkings, The Citizen's Guide to Gun Control, 1987 cited in Hansson, "Guns and Control,"7.

2 It is thought possible that possession of a firearm gives the criminal courage to do what he might not otherwise do. Wright, Rossi and Daley, Under the Gun. 130.
3 Ibid., 189-190.

Those adequately resolute to kill another have a number of means by which to do it. Victims can be shot, stabbed, strangled, beaten, burnt, poisoned, thrown off a train, etc. etc. Robbers could threaten victims; individual and corporate, with physical force, knives, sticks, pipes, bombs etc. While utilising a firearm may be most efficient and convenient, it is reasonable to assume that a sufficiently determined predator will not be deterred by the absence of a firearm or by any kind of firearm legislation.4

However, it is also true that some homicides are not the result of an earnest premeditated attack. For example, one drunken motorist enrages another, a fight ensues and one ends up dead. This will be termed the "escalated dispute" scenario. The fatality is not accidental because at the time of the incident the perpetrator sincerely meant to inflict serious harm or kill the victim. However, a very strong case can be made that me homicide was not premeditated and the intent to kill "ambiguous" and short-lived. In other words the perpetrator did not really want the victim to die, but at the time of the incident his/her judgement was impaired owing to intoxication or "enraged passions".

The outcome of this incident could reasonably be determined by the relative lethality of the weapons on hand. Cook argues that introducing a gun into a violent encounter increases the chance of a fatality occurring.5 He contends that many murders possibly arise from unintentional fits of anger that are quickly regretted, and merely removing a firearm form the equation would prevent these deaths. 6


In South Africa, the substitution effect has yet to be empirically tested. Given the general availability of firearms, both legal and illegal, what might happen if firearms should be less-

4 Marvin Wolfgang, Patterns in Criminal Homicide (Philadelphia. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1958) cited in Wright, Rossi and Daley, Under the Gun, 189-190.
5 Editorial, Cincinnati Enquirer (January 23 1996) cited in Lott and Mustard, "Crime and Deterrence," 1.
6 Philip Cook, "The Role of Firearms in Violent Crime," In Criminal Violence eds. M E Wolfgang and N. A. Werner (1982) cited in Lott and Mustard, "Crime and Deterrence," 1.

-easily available can only be hypothesised. However, this can possibly be inferred from the evidence relating to the degree of premeditated intent involved in murders Premeditated criminal intent is usually assumed in the case of armed robbery but premeditated homicidal intent is not. The two types of crime will be separately examined.

Wright and Rossi's study of criminals and their weapon use in the United States, indicated that carrying multiple weapons was commonplace, the most popular combination being a gun and a knife. Many criminals habitually carried arms, not only when intending to commit a felony.7

If South Africans exhibit similar tendericics, this would suggest that those currently committing crimes with firearms may already carry knives as a backup. If this is the case then there is no reason to think that other weapons such as knives would not be substituted in the place of firearms, should the later become scarce.

For premeditated murder, the degree of earnest intent suggests that it is most probable that alternative means will be utilised in the absence of a firearm. Whatever the means available, the weapon is more likely that it will be used with deadly effect than in the case of the "escalated dispute", given the lack of premeditation and resolve. Thus, firearm control is extremely unlikely to significantly decrease the rate of premeditated murders if these assumptions are valid.

In the case of the "escalated dispute" the assertion that the first available weapon is used, also suggests that a case can be made for the substitution effect. However assuming that the intent to kill is somewhat ambivalent and temporary, the intrinsic lethality of the weapon at hand would be relatively more decisive.

Therefore, if "escalated dispute" murders far outnumber premeditated murders and if firearms are intrinsically more lethal than other weapons that might be substituted in their place, then decreasing the availability of firearms to potential criminals would decrease the rate of criminal homicide.

1.1 Firearm Homicides in South Africa

As previously established, in the "escalated dispute scenario" the intrinsic lethality of the weapon at hand could reasonably determine the outcome of the incident. By ensuring that there are no firearms present in the case of an escalated dispute, conflict supposedly becomes less lethal even if other weapons are substituted in their place.

In Chapter 3 the majority of murders, and many attempted murders, in most provinces other than Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal, were classified as intimate and acquaintance violence with excessive alcohol abuse and interpersonal disputes being the defining features of these incidents. However, most of these murders were perpetrated with knives and other sharp objects rather than firearms.

In Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng, murders and attempted murders seem to be less associated with alcohol abuse and the corresponding interpersonal disputes. Both provinces appear to have a higher ratio of organised violence and violence associated with aggravated robbery.

They also have a much higher ratio of firearm-related murders.
Given the exceptionally high degree to which factional conflicts and aggravated robbery involve the use of firearms, it would not be unreasonable to surmise that the frequency of these incidents in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng could account for the higher ratio of firearm related incidents in these provinces.

For the country as a whole, an educated guess would put homicides related to these two crime types at no more than 55 percent of the total number of murders in South Africa.9 Taking Mpumalanga as an average (which it possibly is not) the CIAC office estimates that about 15 percent of murders showed evidence of premeditation.10

8 Phillip Cook, "The Influence of Gun Availability on Violent Crime Patterns," in Crime and Justice: An Annual Review of Research eds., M. Tonry and N. Morris (1983) cited in S. Jagwanth and T.S. Thipanyane. "Gun Control in South Africa: a Critical Review in South African Journal of Criminal Justice (6) (1993), 22.

9 Wesson, "Murder and Private Firearms."
10 SAPS CIAC, "Selected Research Results "

Therefore, it appears that the vast majority of murders in South Africa fit the "escalated dispute" scenario, but this cannot be known tor sure. except in a small number of cases me degree of premeditated intent cannot be conclusively inferred from the circumstances surrounding any particular incident. This remains conjecture.

However, as previously established, a large number of these murders were perpetrated with a knife, This raises the distinct possibility that the majority of "escalated disputes" in South Africa involve the use of a knife rather than a firearm, and thus firearm control is unlikely to affect the outcome of these incidents.

Conversely, it is also possible that most firearm murders in South Africa are as a result of organised and stranger violence, with their supposedly greater degree of premeditation and resolve. Despite the possibility that "escalated dispute" firearm murders may constitute a minority of murders in South Africa,11 these could possibly be avoided by the removal of a deadly weapon from the situation. In these cases, the potential of firearm control to decrease the rate of homicide would depend on the relative lethality of firearms and knives.


Many international studies indicate that firearm injuries are more likely to cause the death of the victim than knife injuries. To be very specific, a bullet wound is more likely to kill than a knife wound. This fact is used to assert that firearms are intrinsically more lethal weapons. Estimates vary suggesting that firearm attacks are anywhere between two and five times as more lethal than knife attacks,12

However, it does not necessarily follow that a perpetrator wielding a gun is inevitably more likely to kill the victim than a perpetrator wielding a knife. It is only if the perpetrator actually attacks the victim and wounds the victim, that firearms are more likely to cause death.

11 Wesson estimates that "escalated dispute" firearm homicides constitute about 20 percent of total murders.
12 Wright, Rossi and Daley, Under the Gun, 198.

The nature of murder and attempted murder with a weapon necessarily envisages an attack of some sort. However, the likelihood of actual attack is of great importance in relation to robbery and is considered in the next section.

For those provinces in which "escalated dispute" murders appear to be most common (see Chapter 3) approximately one third of murder were perpetrated with a firearm and two thirds with other weapons, most frequently a knife or other sharp object.13 While this does not speak directly to the "success rate" of murder attempts with knives and firearms respectively, it does indicate that in cases where murderous intent is supposedly ambiguous and short-lived, knives are frequently used with deadly effect,

In an attempt to establish more relative lethality of firearms and other weapons (most commonly a knife) in the hands of South African offenders. Wesson's analysis suggests that assailants wielding a firearm are half as likely to successfully kill their victim as those wielding another weapon. 64 percent of attempted murders, when the assailant does not use a firearm (ie uses a knife etc), results in a successful murder, while only 36 percent of attempts to murder a victim with a firearm are successful.

13 Calculated from Chetty, "Firearm Crime in South Africa," 23 14 Wesson, "Murder and Private Firearms."

This result cannot be taken at face value. Importantly, as mentioned before, all near-fatal attacks with a firearm are recorded as attempted murder and serious attacks with other weapons are often recorded as assault GBH. This would severely alter the ratios. On the other hand, in 1998, 74 percent of attempted murders were recorded as having been attempted with a firearm. This would indicate 7451 incidents involving other weapons were serious enough to be recorded as attempted murders.15

This demonstrates that possibly the most serious attacks with other weapons are recorded as attempted murder and not assault GBH, Thus Wesson's analysis may have more validity than originally suspected. However, the peculiarities of police recording practices tend to obscure the relative lethality of weapons as wielded by would-be murderers.

These cursory comments are by no means intended to seriously dispute the issue of the relative lethality of firearms. There is overwhelming international evidence pointing to the lethality of firearms relative to other weapons.16 These comments serve merely to point out that there are factors other than the intrinsic lethality of weapons (such as marksmanship), intoxication, proximity of perpetrator to victim etc.) that impinge on the outcome of any particular incident.

2.1 Firearm Robbery in South Africa.

Firearms appear to be particularly useful in the execution of armed robberies. Guns are easily concealable, arc very intimidating to the victim and can be used at a greater distance from the victim. They are also more likely to ensure the victim's compliance.17 As many lucrative targets are protected by armed personnel, firearms put robbers on a more equal footing with the security forces, making it possible to undertake larger scale crimes and make crimes easier to commit.18

15 Calculated from CIAC cited in Chetty, "Firearm Crime in South Africa," 26.
16 Hansson, "Guns and Control" 6-8.
17 Secretary of State for Scotland, "Lord Cullen's Inquiry into the Circumstances leading up to and surrounding the Events at Dunblane Primary School on Wednesday 13 March 1996- Evidence Submitted on behalf of the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Home Secretary, 30 April 1996 cited in Besdziek, "Into the Breech," 30.
18 Wright and Rossi. Armed and Considered Dangerous, 3.

In South Africa about 85 percent of serious robberies in 1998 were committed with a firearm.19 In the case of hijacking of trucks, carjacking, cash-in transit heists and bank robberies, the percentage of perpetrators armed with a firearm may be even higher. Despite the fact that the vast majority of robbers are armed with a firearm, it appears that hijackings, bank robberies and cash-in-transit heists together, result in no more than one hundred and sixty homicides of the total ± twenty five thousand murders committed annually,20

The fairly low rate of homicides accompanying armed robbery probably reflects the fact that the primary goal of robbery is material gain and violence is employed predominantly as a means to an end rather than constituting an end in itself. The criminals that partook in Wright and Rossi's study maintained that the reason for carrying a weapon was primarily to scare the victim. Most indicated that the weapon had in fact only been used in the manner intended.21

However, it also probably reflects, to some extent, the fact that firearms are very intimidating and tend to ensure the compliance of the victim. The choice of an alternative weapon such as a knife could result in greater resistance from the victim and escalation of the confrontation into and attack. As a result, armed robberies committed with a knife may prove more deadly than those perpetrated with a firearm.22

Guns also enable criminals to hit more lucrative targets like banks and cash-in-transit vehicles. Decreasing the availability of firearms may result in criminals attacking more vulnerable targets such as the elderly.

If criminals were deprived of guns they may also compensate for the decrease in efficacy by increasing the rate at which they commit crime.23 While the use of firearms clearly facilitates the perpetration of aggravated robbery, removing firearms from the hands of criminals will not necessarily decrease the rate of armed robbery. In fact quite the opposite is possible.

19 SAPS CIAC cited in Chetty, "Firearm Crime in South Africa," 27.
20 SAPS CIAC, "Generators of Crime."
21 Wright and Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous, 92. 22 Wright and Rossi, Armed and Considered Dangerous, 3. 23 Ibid., 4.


It appears that the majority of murders in South Africa fit the "escalated dispute" scenario. This cannot be proven conclusively, but the available evidence points in this direction. However, a large portion of these are already committed with a knife or other sharp object. For those that are perpetrated with a gun, the fatality could possibly have been avoided by the absence of a firearm from the situation, given the greater intrinsic lethality of firearms. In this way, stringent firearm control measures could decrease the rate of "escalated dispute" homicides in South Africa. For those premeditated homicides, it can reasonably be assumed that determined predators would find an alternative means with which to murder.

Given the specific role that firearms play in armed robberies, it is possible that the incidence of murder and attempted murder related to armed robbery might increase, as well as the incidence of armed robbery itself. Thus, effective firearm control may simultaneously increase and decrease incidents of violent crime.
"I'd rather have a gun and not need it than vice versa."
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