Make gun laws tighter

2015-02-02 06:00

It has been three months since Senzo Meyiwa’s murder catapulted the problem of South Africa’s epidemic of gun violence on to news agendas worldwide. What was sadly an everyday occurrence was remarkable only because Meyiwa was captain of the national soccer team, in the prime of a promising career and a beloved public figure.

Reactions to his shooting were swift and the urgency to act was recognised at the highest level: from the president of the SA Football Association, Danny Jordaan, calling for the “Senzo Meyiwa GunLaw”, to the police team preparing amendments to the 2000 Firearms Control Act (FCA) briefing the justice and security cluster chaired by President Jacob Zuma and finally the ANC’s call for stricter gun laws.

Jordaan called for an amnesty to hand in illegal weapons, suggesting all guns handed in be melted down and formed into a statue in memory of Meyiwa.

Twelve weeks later, where has all this energy and focus gone?

South Africa can associate itself with a handful of countries where windows of opportunity have been seized – if only after murder, grief, tragedy, high-profile killings and massacres – to implement major policy change to tackle gun violence.

Gun-related policies in such countries have now been in place long enough to provide clear evidence that stringent and consistently enforced national gun laws reduce armed violence, save lives, decrease the burden of shooting injuries on health, justice and social protection systems and improve economic and social prospects.

In 2003, Brazil agreed on a ground-breaking national gun control law. After a decade of implementation, populous cities such as Sao Paulo have had a staggering 70% reduction in firearm-related homicide. It also set a new global standard based on the irrefutable evidence that young people – overwhelmingly young men – worldwide are disproportionately affected by armed violence. The age limit for weapons acquisition was set at 25 in light of this clear evidence. South Africa could consider the same standard.

Just 12 days after the 1996 Australian gun massacre, conservative then prime minister John Howard convened his ministers, secured tough national gun laws, took nearly a million weapons out of circulation and ended a legacy of disconnected and incoherent state-by-state laws. It was not in Howard’s political interest to champion gun control, but it was a decisive and evidence-informed response.

A leading evaluation of his reforms has concluded the policy changes now save up to $500 million (R5.8?billion) per year in violence-related costs and have saved about 200 lives to date. These changes indicate a seismic shift in a culture that once believed unfettered gun possession was a right.

The changes meet the Zimring standard first proposed in 1991 by US criminologist Frank Zimring to measure effective gun control:

»Prohibit/restrict certain uses of weapons and ammunition;

»Prohibit/restrict certain users of weapons; and

»Prohibit/restrict certain types of weapons and ammunition.

South Africa’s gun laws adhere to these principles.

Just weeks into 2015, gun violence dominated local headlines:

»Eight-year-old girl killed in crossfire;

»Man kills wife then himself in police station; and

»Ten-year-old finds dad’s gun and kills friend.

South Africa has an opportunity to reclaim its global leadership status in the push to reduce gun violence. This will require a multifaceted government approach that includes mopping up the existing pool of illegal guns through a national blanket firearms amnesty, ensuring the data in the central firearms registry is accurate and has integrity and using the review of the FCA as an opportunity to tighten the law rather than weaken it, informed by ample available evidence about what is working to reduce homicide, violence and crime in South Africa.

The review of the FCA due this year must ensure it does not alter elements that would see South Africa fail to meet the Zimring minimum standard.

Two elements that require vigilance are the principle of regular licence renewal and the limit on the number of guns an individual may own.

Currently, South Africa’s owner-licensing process includes a competency certificate valid for five years (for a handgun for self-defence), verifying an individual has met criteria related to “fit and proper behaviour” and there remains a genuine need for continued gun ownership. The global norm is between two to five years – the FCA review must not seek to change this.

Four guns per person is the current limit: this is informed by the policy for control of firearms in South Africa that aims to “… cut down on the number of firearms in the country and to protect South African citizens from the crime associated with both illegal and legal firearms”.

Increase the number of legal guns and the number of illegal guns will increase because of theft and loss.

It is time for South Africa to seize this game-changing moment: strengthen the existing gunlaw, ramp up implementation and accelerate the wider efforts to address the social and political drivers of gun violence in South Africa.

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