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So who exactly own firearms?

24 March 2014, 13:08

Someone else posted an article recently. In the comments, another user posted the following: "People who love guns, other than collectors of antique weapons, are the last people who should ever have access to guns." followed shortly by "BTW, before you go ape. I view Gun Free South Africa with contempt. I am not anti-gun. Just anti the gungho (sic) gun types and their attitudes.". Leaving aside for a moment the obvious problem in the first sentence, it got me thinking, how exactly does the population of South Africa view the average “legal” firearm owner? As knuckle-dragging hillbillies? People with responsibility issues and “gung-ho” attitudes? A recent one I heard, people living in fear needing some reassurance on their hip? Or are firearm owners perhaps entirely normal people with a certain interest and maybe different, but perhaps reasonable, thoughts on the citizen’s role in protecting him or herself?

I’m partial to the last one. Not least surprisingly because I’m a firearm owner myself! Allow me then, by way of introduction to give some sort of “CV” of who I am and how I came to be a “gun nut”.. I’ll also tell you of others who share my passion for firearms. You may be surprised at how similar we are to people you know. May we’re even a lot more similar to yourself than you thought. My personal firearm history may be long but perhaps it’s interesting. If not, feel free to skip to the last third of this write-up.

I was born in one of South Africa’s cities in the time some 30 decades ago when all was not well in the country but then, being young, I didn’t know that. I had two parents (who are still together today) that loved me, sought the best opportunities for me and brought me up as best they could. This included teaching me responsibility - some of you may frown upon me thinking that firearms played a substantial role in this but I’m adamant it did. Allow me to explain in a long winded way over several paragraphs: We had a family farm and our annual holiday was going there for two weeks. We didn’t go to the seaside like other families, I learnt later in life that money was one of the reasons. The farm was great for a kids growing up. It was large, open, safe, clean, no electricity - all the things most kids of today can but dream of having. Of course my dad, the uncles and the elder cousins were busy collecting biltong to keep the freezers stocked for the year. Being curious, I was intrigued and wanted to learn to shoot as well. As did my younger sister later. My one cousin didn’t, he had other interests and shooting wasn’t forced on him.

So it came to be that I was taught to handle firearms from the age of, well, I don’t know but probably 4 years of age. I’m sure some readers are gasping as they read this but fear not as this was all done under adult supervision where much of the day learning “shooting” was spent learning safety, safety above all else. So much so that when I much later in my life encountered Colonel Jeff Cooper’s 4 laws of firearm safety, I realised I knew them by heart but not as a list of 4 things. Other things in addition, I recall to this day how strict my father was on how to get to the other side of a camp fence with a firearm – you never climbed through the fence with the firearm in your hands.

At 6 years of age I took my first guineafowl. The faded photo of me in a blue sweater with a panda on it, lovingly made by my grandmother, clutching a guineafowl destined for the pot in one hand and a rifle almost longer than I was tall in the other is still around somewhere in an old photo album. Some might think it odd but the memory of my father’s pride at me displaying the first steps on the long journey to marksmanship is one of my most cherished ones. I can still go to the exact same spot where I made the shot and recall the incident in greater detail than many other things in childhood. I don’t find it disturbing at all – a father’s involvement and pride in his children’s small accomplishments is something many children go without. Over and above that, at 6 years old, I provided a meal for the family. Guess how empowered children feel when they get to contribute?

I will not retell the story in much detail of my dad forcing me to prepare and eat a small bird (woodpecker if I recall correctly) that I shot “just for fun” some years later. Let’s just say the lesson stuck, I don’t shoot for the pleasure of killing. There’s so much more to hunting than the kill and it’s a shame non-hunters don’t realise it.

At the age of 10, I took my first buck after progressing to handling the recoil of bigger hunting rifles. Much small game destined to become an assortment of biltong, sosaties and steaks followed in the years thereafter. I don’t know exactly when I was allowed to go walk and stalk hunting on the farm without supervision but it was pretty normal for boys growing up on the farm (at least partially in my case) to reach this stage not long after their first buck. For me, it was before I started driving the farm bakkie. The responsibility to handle an object with lethal capability is not lost on you when you actually hunt animals with it. Nor when you are indoctrinated with safety of their use, with very, very firm discipline if you are ever observed not adhering to safety rules laid down. Anyway, to this day I remain a hunter, going hunting at least twice a year – once with my mates and once with the womenfolk, whether they hunt or not (and some, like my wife, do!), coming along. Not only does it provide a great opportunity to enjoy the outdoors, it also means the meat in my freezer is free range in the best way possible.

So now you know how I came to firearms and even a little of how I grew up. It doesn’t tell you much about my interests in firearms growing beyond hunting or what kind of person I am. It does tell you I had a normal and in some ways, privileged, childhood. I certainly didn’t grow up among gang violence or in a broken home or as a spoilt brat. Those are out as “excuses” for why I shouldn’t own a firearm, I certainly don’t have something to compensate for or some hidden insecurity, neither do I picture myself as particularly important. Let’s get on with how I became the firearms enthusiast I am today.

My parents left the big city even before I reached school but I went back to the city for the final few years of my high school. Koshuis (Boarding school), with my parents, their firearms, home in the small rural town and the farm far away, became my way of living. I was a good student academically, captained the school’s second team in my sport of choice at some stage and I also sang in the choir. Pretty divergent participation then, some would say a well-balanced child. I will admit to being what others at school called a “nerd” and struggling to fit in socially at school. Struggling to fit in socially seems part and parcel of teenage years though so I can’t think I was any worse off than any number of other kids then and now. Once again, hardly abnormal.

After school I went to university. I was a typical student, doing some things that with the hindsight of some more years seem unbelievably stupid and reckless. Of course it involved drinking, what good student story doesn’t? Clean fun though and no run-ins with the law. During this time, I licensed my first firearm. I wasn’t 21 yet but this was under the old act, not the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (which actually came into effect only in 2004 – remember that when anybody sprouts statistics of what was achieved by the new act). The firearm I licensed was a hunting rifle, a “safe queen” my dad owned. I earned it by doing some vacation work for my dad – I knew him well enough not to work for money! The rifle accompanied when I went to the farm on weekends or holidays. As I moved around in my student and early work years, I wonder how many holes I drilled in commune walls to fit the rifle safe, only to plaster and paint them before vacating the house. Of course I didn’t consult the owner of the house beforehand due to the stigma attached to firearm owners by some.

My working years started and suddenly I had some more funds available. I bought additional hunting rifles, started reloading my own ammunition and joined the SA Hunters and Game Conservation Association (SAHGCA), participating in their organised shooting activities. This was my first meeting with other firearm owners in large numbers and I immediately felt very welcome. A lot of people outside the firearm community picture firearm owners as cold, unwelcoming people who view newcomers with suspicion. Nothing can be further from the truth and people from all walks of life were members of my local branch. Few things are as uniting as a common cause that is mistrusted, threatened even, by outside forces. It certainly was evident here but curious newcomers were very much welcome. One thing SAHGCA shoots taught me is that I’m not such a good shot, a theme that persists to this day as I try new shooting disciplines!

During this time, I happened to fire handguns on occasion. It’s a different skill set and was always interesting. I always thought I would buy a handgun “one day”. Two things made me wake up. One was a brutal farm attack close to ours where an old couple was savagely murdered – the lady only died after an agonising spell in hospital. The second was a friend who had come to firearms much later in life, also through hunting first, licensed a handgun and joined the South African Defensive Pistol Association (SADPA), one of the many competitive sports where firearms are used to participate. The videos he showed me really looked like fun plus my blinkers that crime “happens to other people in other places” was forcibly plucked from my eyes by the farm murder. Crime happens to anyone in this country. So I bought a handgun and joined SADPA too. Wow! What an experience! The same warm welcome I experienced at SAHGCA but refreshingly, much more culturally diverse. And competitive! In a good spirit but some take their performance very seriously. Once again, every walk of life was represented – from blue collar workers to highly paid professionals. One of the best competitors in South Africa is a 15 year old. As I type this, I have acquired an additional handgun dedicated to sport shooting. I have also started acquiring the other firearms required to compete in SADPA Defensive Multigun matches – a shotgun and Self Loading Rifle (NOT an “assault rifle”!).

So what is the point of the little history lesson of my life? Simply this – I am a normal person, probably very close to average. I am in my thirties, married (my wife started hunting and also joined SADPA of her own volition) and we’re expecting our first child (my wife misses SADPA terribly…). I am a professional working in a large corporation interfacing with everyone from the CEO to the guy with the shovel. As far as I can tell, I’m generally well liked (I’m not the one that uses the faces of those below me as stepping stones up the ladder). I serve on my church board and mentor some young people at the church. Let’s be clear, I fully understand that firearm owners come from other beliefs and backgrounds, I’ll even get to that in a paragraph or two. My intention though, is to paint you a picture of someone well integrated in society. Someone who makes his contribution. Someone with dreams for this country. Someone very much like your neighbours may be.

And that is the point. Most firearm owners are just like you, the reader. While they come from different backgrounds, beliefs, walks of life and even racial groups, you will not tell them apart in a line-up. You will not even know that person in the supermarket queue with you carries a concealed firearm. Or the lady in the movies behind you. Or the business owner who you just did a transaction with. Or the lawyer you just consulted.

Yes, there are people like Oscar that (allegedly?) do irresponsible things with their firearms. You do get the stupid ones that “open carry” in the malls, I saw one such individual just this week and I shake my head too. The problem is, they are the ones that get the publicity. They are the ones you see. The ONE big difference between the majority of legal firearm owners and any enthusiast of some other hobby is that firearm owners tend not to talk as much about our passion than others, at least to people outside of our world. So while we are everywhere you go, you do not know us as firearm owners. You know us as people and respect us for that. I don’t see the reason why you should suddenly disrespect us as people once you discover we are firearm owners.

Do my friends know I own firearms? Yes, some do. Few know exactly what I own. Even fewer know that I carry my Self Defence firearm with me as often as I can, even when visiting them. Even fewer still know how much time and money I devote to not only mastering my firearm, but other defensive skillsets as well. Not because I’m more fearful of crime than you, only because I have made a different decision on how I will react to it, a decision which may hold different consequences than yours.

How well do you know your friends? And your neighbours? The people in your suburb? The person in the queue at the supermarket? Do they seem like knuckle-dragging hillbillies to you?

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