In South Africa, fire arms related fatalities outnumber deaths from car accidents and are the leading cause non-natural deaths and of all deaths among 15- to 21-year-old males.
Credit: Brent Stirton/OCHA
Seven years ago, Pam Crowesly's twin brother was fatally shot at his workplace. The suspected perpetrator was a disgruntled former employee, but there were no witnesses. Little police investigation and no prosecution followed.

Six years later, Crowesly's 16-year-old son, Daniel, also became a gun victim when his best friend accidentally shot him with a weapon he had borrowed from his father. The father was banned from owning a gun for a five-year period but received no further penalties for handing a loaded firearm to a minor.

Although one death was deliberate and the other accidental, Crowesly identified guns as the common factor. Her family may have suffered more than its share of tragedy as a result of gun violence, but their case is far from unusual in a country where firearm fatalities outnumber deaths from car accidents. In South Africa, shootings are the leading cause of non-natural deaths in the general population, and the leading cause of death, both natural and non-natural, among 15- to 21-year-old males. Every day, newspapers feature grisly accounts of four-year-olds accidentally shooting four-year-olds, of husbands shooting wives or of bank robbers storming shopping malls with AK-47 assault rifles.

"Firearms have had really devastating consequences in South Africa," said Judy Bassingthwaighte, national director of Gun-Free South Africa, a gun-control lobby group that Crowesly recently joined. "We all know someone who's been hijacked at gunpoint. Breadwinners are being killed, and gun violence is stealing precious resources from economic and social development."

A recent report, commissioned by Oxfam and carried out by Gun-Free, documented how the political violence of the 1980s and early 1990s gave way to a growth in criminal violence after the 1994 all-race elections. Many people, especially white South Africans, responded to the crime wave by arming themselves, with no legal limits on how many guns they could own. The country is now awash with 3.7 million legally registered firearms and an unknown - but by some estimates even larger - pool of illegal guns. According to the report, more than 100,000 people lost their lives in gun-related violence in the first 10 years of South Africa's democratic transformation.

The country's international notoriety for violent crime has had a damaging impact on foreign investment; resources urgently needed to develop the country's underfunded health and education sectors have been spent instead on safety and security measures. The latest and most comprehensive of those measures is the Firearms Control Act, passed in 2000 but only in its second year of implementation. The new legislation places strict controls on gun sales and ownership and replaces outdated apartheid-era laws that did little to prevent the proliferation of guns.

Had Daniel Crowesly's death occurred two months later, his friend's father could have been prosecuted under the new law, which prohibits lending a gun without supervision and rises the minimum age for owning a weapon from 16 to 21. The new gun law also limits individuals to one handgun for self-defence and a maximum of three additional firearms for hunting and sport shooting. Would-be gun owners must justify their need for a weapon and undergo competency training and background checks, which prohibit anyone with a history of substance abuse or violent crime from owning a gun. Current gun owners are required to hand over excess guns and renew their licenses under the new law.

Crowesly welcomed the new law as "fantastic", but groups as ideologically opposed as Gun-Free and the South African Gun Owners’ Association (SAGA) have pointed out that potential problems with the legislation lie in its implementation. "It's well-intentioned from a control point of view, but the intentions can't be translated into reality," said SAGA spokesman Martin Hood. "There are major shortcomings in terms of the ability to implement the act."

The police are in their second year of a five-year plan to stagger the monumental re-licensing task. According to deadlines, which have been determined by date of birth, owners with birthdays falling between January and March had to renew their licenses by the end of 2005. SAGA estimated that 600,000 renewals must be processed per year if the police are to avoid backlogs, but the police dispute this figure, saying that an unknown number of gun owners may still decide to hand over or sell their weapons rather than renew their licenses.

According to police spokesman Phuti Setati, 6,000 renewal applications are currently being processed and, contrary to claims by SAGA, those whose applications were not completed by the end of 2005 would not be prosecuted for illegal possession. Meanwhile, applications for new gun licenses are taking months to process. In response to concerns that many gun owners are not even aware of the new requirements, Setati said the police service had been distributing pamphlets and holding road shows and public meetings in every province. He refused to comment on what percentage of the new applications had been approved.

According to officials, large number of illegal weapons can be traced to badly secured, military armories and the sale of guns by corrupt police officers.
Bassingthwaighte described the licensing backlog as "growing pains", but conceded that the police could have been better organised and done more to inform gun owners about the new regulations. Noel Stott, senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies' Arms Management Programme, reasoned that the new act demands a lot more from the police than the old legislation and that it would take time to phase in. "It's an incredibly comprehensive act, and they've had to put a lot of structures and personnel in place. We know the police are undercapacitated," he explained.

The main criticism of the pro-gun lobby is that the focus of the legislation on law-abiding gun owners is misplaced. "They're devoting a great deal of time and energy to policing legal firearm owners and not criminals. People are entitled to defend themselves when there are very high levels of crime," said Hood, the SAGA spokesman.

During the 1990s, large numbers of guns found their way into South Africa from war zones in Mozambique, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola. However, it is generally agreed that the majority of illegal firearms used in crimes today originated in South Africa, but that is where consensus ends.

Hood cited large numbers of illegal weapons that could be traced to badly secured police and military armouries and the sale of guns by corrupt police officers. However, the Gun- Free lobby supported the police's assertion that the majority of illegal arms used in crimes began as legal guns that were lost or stolen from civilian owners. According to statistics in the Gun-Free report, an average of 66 guns were reported lost or stolen in South Africa everyday between 1995 and 2003.

"The gun lobby says they're the law-abiding citizens, but then why do we have so many lost firearms?" Bassingthwaighte asked. She and Crowesly were hopeful that the new legislation, which includes strict rules for the safe storage of firearms, would force gun owners to be more responsible.

During a six-month amnesty on illegal guns, which ended in June 2005, the police collected close to 100,000 firearms. Abios Khoele of the Black Gun Owners’ Association of South Africa believed many more guns would have been handed in had the police offered compensation and had the amnesty not been conditional on linking guns to crimes through ballistic testing.

Khoele founded the Black Gun Owners Association based on his experience working in a gun shop and seeing license applications by black people continually turned down. He became convinced that the new law was a deliberate ploy to disarm the black masses as they became increasingly frustrated by the government's slow delivery on election promises of more jobs, housing and services. Claiming that none of its 20,000 members have managed to secure a gun license under the new law, the association is now suing the government for 3.2 billion rand (US $516 million) in losses and damages.

Khoele saw his members' fight as distinct from that of the white gun lobby. "White people want more firearms for sport, and black people only want one gun for self-defence," he said. "In our townships, it is not safe at all, especially for people who are taking early transport to work, when it's still dark and they're walking a long distance. A white man in Sandton [a predominantly white suburb] - he's got an electric fence, high walls and a garage for his car."

The lack of police presence in townships and the difficulty and expense of acquiring a gun legally will see more and more black people buying illegal guns and "taking the law into their own hands," warned Khoele. "Those people are sick and tired of crime, and they have no other way of dealing with the situation."

Crowesly and other supporters of the new gun law were also frustrated by high crime rates and an underresourced police service, but they believed the answer lay in fewer, not more, guns in circulation. "Even if my brother had had a gun, in that situation he never would have been able to defend himself," she said. "I know many people own guns for self-defence, but I honestly believe that if people know you've got a gun, you are a target."

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