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The massacre of 17 people at a high school in Florida last month sent shock waves beyond the borders of the US. Terrified students hid in closets and under desks as a 19-year-old former student fired into hallways and the school grounds.
US President Donald Trump reportedly initially responded to the shooting by saying he would“consider a proposal to arm school teachers in an attempt to prevent mass shootings”. The resulting backlash prompted him to revise his statement to only include trained teachers.
His response suggests that being armed will make people safer, a widely held view among pro-gun advocates. This perception is not unique to the US. Earlier last month, Gun Free SA ran a Twitter poll asking how people would feel if their partner had a gun.
The response options were “safer”, “not safe” and “unsure”. The poll received 29 766 responses. An overwhelming majority, 86%, said they would feel safer.
After my house was broken into by four men, while my kids and I were there, many people advised me to get a gun, believing then I’d feel – and be – safer. And after such a violation, also considering the high levels of violent crime in South Africa, it was easy to understand the kneejerk reaction. But a gun, which the World Health Organisation describes as one of the most lethal means of violence, was not an option for me. All the things that could go wrong crossed my mind.
Gun ownership has been linked to higher risks of accidental death, suicide and an overall increase in aggressive behaviour. The thing is, being human means knowing that mistakes can happen. With a gun, these mistakes could have deadly consequences, something I am not willing to risk. No matter how careful one tries to be, one cannot gun-proof a home in which there is a gun.
The perception that a gun makes people safer is not rooted in reality. An analysis of data from comparable studies across developed countries, including the US, sheds serious doubt on guns increasing safety. Instead, it found that “households that own guns run higher risks of seeing their members being criminally victimised”. The same holds true for South Africa. A Johannesburg-based study to assess the effectiveness of having a gun for self-defence showed that gun owners are four times more likely to have their guns used against them, than to use them in self-defence.
A two-year research project by the Institute for Security Studies found that criminals are more likely to kill when people fight back during aggravated robberies. This is another way the risk of being killed is increased when attempting to use a gun in self-defence.
The risks of gun ownership aren’t just from strangers. In Empangeni, Durban, an 11-year-old boy turned his father’s gun on himself after accidentally shooting his two-year-old sister. This underscores how easily the mere presence of guns can lead to horrific tragedy.
The dangers are not limited to the households of gun owners. As I have written before, a significant number of illegal guns in the hands of criminals usually start off as legal weapons. The SA Police Service’s 2016/17 annual report shows that 9 708 firearms were lost or stolen. Of these, 92% were owned by civilians, which meant that, on average, gun owners added 25 guns per day to the illegal gun pool in one year – putting many others in harm’s way.
Of course pro-gun advocates will argue that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. This ignores a large, and likely to still grow, amount of evidence that shows that strong gun control saves lives. Various studies showed a decrease in gun-related deaths following South Africa’s passing of the Firearms Control Act in 2000. Another study found that between 2001 and 2005, an estimated 4 585 lives were saved in the five major cities across the country, which was directly linked to stricter gun control.
This was affirmed in 2016 by the most extensive review of the research on the effects of gun control. A total of 130 studies from 10 countries over 60 years showed that: “The simultaneous implementation of laws targeting multiple firearms restrictions is associated with reductions in firearm deaths.”
If crime and violence are truly a concern, decreasing the number of guns in circulation is essential. This can only be achieved through the reduction of gun ownership, alongside strong gun control policies.
Moeti has a long background in civic activism and worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She was a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti
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