Dangerous weapons

2008-03-05 00:00

It was reported yesterday that the amendment proposed for the Dangerous Weapons Act has split public opinion, with some strongly in favour, and others, especially those determined to protect themselves from attack in this crime-riddled country, as strongly opposed. The amendment will outlaw the carrying of all harmful weapons in public, lethal and non-lethal. Pepper guns or sprays have so far been excluded.

It’s a complex matter. Given that crime in South Africa is rampant, one must have some sympathy for any attempt to curb it, and the idea of cleaning up our streets by banning all weapons does have merit. Most would agree that in theory it’s a fine thing to prevent everyone from carrying in public weapons that could kill or maim. In practice, however, the issue is not at all clear-cut. For anyone openly to carry — just for the sake of it — an offensive weapon such as a cane knife or blow gun, is clearly unacceptable. But a blanket ban does not take into account character, socio-economic factors or context.

We do not live in New York, where former mayor Rudy Giuliani’s clamp-down on antisocial behaviour of every kind, including such minor infringements as urinating in public, significantly reduced violent and other crime in the streets. If the state is to use its discretionary powers in an attempt to curb crime, it needs to be able to distinguish between “weapons” used innocently, such as pocket knives, or in an accepted context, such as sport or farming, and those carried with harmful intent. Again, a blanket ban that disregards circumstances and context could be damaging and even play into the criminal activity the law is designed to prevent. Further, it may well — given the state of policing in this country — be impossible to enforce a law which will be so fraught with ifs and buts and special pleas and conditions.

Which leads one to ask if the proposed amendment really is aimed at reducing crime, or if its purpose is to distract attention from the glaring societal inadequacies the government should be tackling. First, there’s the chronic and worsening socio-economic deprivation that generates so much anger and violence. Second, there’s the fact that the police, for a variety of reasons, including among other things incompetence and venality, poor training and poor pay, cannot control crime. Thus, although a ban on weapons might change patterns of criminality, it’s unlikely that it would have any effect on crime as a whole. Instead, by eroding the right of people to protect themselves from criminal attack, it could increase their vulnerability and feed into an escalation of crime countrywide.

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