Violence is the smoking gun of SA’s machismo

2014-03-27 10:00

The ongoing Oscar Pistorius trial raises questions about the relationship between men and their guns.

It is well known that most acts of violence across the world, including gun-related violence, are perpetrated by men against both men and women.

This begs two questions: “Why do men commit so many killings with guns?” and “Why is gun ownership so important to some men?”

Research shows there is a relationship between masculinity and gun ownership, particularly the dominant cultural stereotype that men need to be brave and prepared to use violence or force against any threat or intimidation to themselves, their families and their possessions.

For example, in the popular imagination, the intruder, who is also currently in the dock at the Pistorius trial, is a dangerous young black man who threatened Pistorius and Steenkamp’s safety.

The ability to “take out” the imagined or real threat are signs of a chauvinistic and macho masculinity, which some men celebrate and brag about.

Shooting someone proves bravery and legitimises claims to manhood – particularly if the victim is another male. In such instances, gun violence is used to assert power and control.

These dynamics explain why men are particularly at risk of gun-related deaths and injuries, and why firearm homicide is so high among men.

Globally, a firearm is used in 42% of male homicides. In South Africa, for every one woman shot and killed, nine men are shot dead.

Men are involved in the use and abuse of guns in almost all settings. For example, their participation in structures and institutions that legitimise the use of guns (such as in the military, the police, the private security industry or criminal gangs) can be seen as one way of asserting their sense of manhood.

For some males, owning guns – particularly if they are more lethal or sophisticated – is a symbol of power and authority. Guns are deeply rooted in South Africa’s history – in our colonial apartheid past as part of a largely white Afrikaner masculinity, and as part of the anti-apartheid struggle that included the arming of predominantly young black men in the townships.

In post-apartheid South Africa, fear of violent crime is used by some to proclaim the right to own firearms to protect their families and homes, despite the existing evidence that owning a gun does not guarantee one’s safety and security. On the contrary.

Crime victimisation psychologist John van Kesteren, in his most recent global study, shows there is a “statistically significant correlation at the country level between levels of handgun ownership and rates of victimisation by gun-related contact crimes, gun-related threats and assaults, and homicides, gun-related or otherwise”.

The study also shows that members of households in which a gun is present face a higher risk of victimisation.

In South Africa, the evidence shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it in self-defence. Guns in the home also increase the risk of death and injury by suicide and accidents, and by intimate partner violence.

We need to break the cycle of violence. One way to do this might be to establish dialogues among men to embrace voices of masculinity that are nonviolent, nonsexist and nonracist, in which owning a gun is not synonymous with what it means to be a “real” man.

This can contribute to reducing gun-related deaths in South Africa, as well as its associated links with notions of violent masculinity and other risk-taking behaviours such as substance abuse, which is also a risk factor in men’s reckless use of guns.

Changing the face of violence in South Africa needs to start at home, at school and in communities as a whole. We all have a role to play in rejecting the tools of violence.

Langa is a registered psychologist, lecturer and researcher at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation

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