A gun-free South Africa is possible

A gun free South Africa
A gun free South Africa

Last weekend, a young man was shot while on holiday.

Armed with his gun, he went to investigate noises he’d heard, but was shot and killed by armed criminals, who then stole his gun.

No arrests have been made and his gun has not been recovered.

The effect of this tragic and senseless death on his family and friends, the communities he was part of and the country as a whole will reverberate long into the future.

Poignantly, he was killed during Disarmament Week, which has been marked globally from October 24 to 30 since 1978.

While the original focus of Disarmament Week was on the elimination of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction, the devastation caused by small arms and light weapons has increasingly been recognised – roughly 54% of homicides worldwide in 2017 were perpetrated with a firearm, and slightly more than a fifth (22%) were perpetrated with a sharp object.

The inclusion of small arms and light weapons in disarmament efforts has been significantly strengthened by the adoption of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which has been described as a “defining moment” for global efforts to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit arms trade as it includes a specific target to significantly reduce the flow of illegal weapons by 2030.

As the world marked Disarmament Week, Parliament announced that a national firearms amnesty – the fourth in the country’s history – will be held later this year.

A question to pose is, can this amnesty make an impact?

Can it, for example, recover the gun that was stolen last weekend?

According to a report on gun control in South Africa over 25 years, which was launched to commemorate Disarmament Week, gun control saves lives.

Firearm amnesties are an important component of effective gun control.

The chance of being shot is not random. For someone to be shot, there must be a gun present.

When guns are controlled and less available, fewer shootings happen and lives are saved.

By recovering both legal and illegally held guns, amnesties reduce gun availability and thus the risk of shootings.

Read: Bheki Cele guns for police chief

The three previous amnesties (in 1994, 2005 and 2010) recovered more than 120 000 firearms (44 000 of which were illegally held) and 1.8 million rounds of ammunition.

The report documenting the history and impact of gun control in South Africa over 25 years, Gun Control and Violence: South Africa’s Story, identifies five key interventions that reduced the availability of guns from 2000 to 2010:

. Stricter regulations, particularly due to the Firearms Control Act, which raised the bar for gun ownership;

. Capacity building to support the implementation of the act, including appointing and training new staff, and acquiring new IT and logistical equipment

. Addressing the use of illegally held guns by way of audits to identify obsolete guns for destruction, national firearm amnesties, and intelligence-driven operations such as Operation Sethunya to recover and destroy illegal guns;

. Raising awareness to inform members of the public of the provisions in the act, as well as campaigns to recover and destroy all unwanted and illegally held guns, such as guns in deceased estates; and

. Regional and sector cooperation, including agreements to standardise the trade, storage, possession and use of guns, as well as operations to recover and destroy guns and other small arms (such as Operation Rachel, which destroyed more than 19 000 firearms in Mozambique).

In the 10 years that firearms were strictly controlled and less available, guns stopped being the leading cause of murder, and gun-related deaths almost halved from 34 people shot and killed a day to 18.

However, gun violence began increasing in 2011 due to various breakdowns in the firearms control management system.

This included fraud and corruption, deliberate leakage of guns from secure stores into the illegal market, inappropriate target-setting, under-resourcing and poor planning.

As a result, guns have become increasingly available.

The latest national crime statistics show that guns are again the leading cause of murder – 47% of the people murdered in the 2018/19 financial year died from gunshot wounds.

The gun control report is a document that shows how to reduce gun violence and halve crime in the country within the next 10 years.

It identifies tried and tested gun control interventions, including firearm amnesties, that saved lives in the past.

These same interventions can again save lives.

Government must use the forthcoming amnesty period to put in place conditions to recover as many illegally held guns as possible, to create the opportunity for the voluntary surrender of legally held guns, to ensure safe storage of all recovered and surrendered firearms and, finally, to make provision for the swift destruction of all these weapons.

Although reducing the availability of guns is a strategic intervention, it will not eradicate violence –this requires an integrated and long-term strategy – but it will save lives by reducing the lethality of violence.

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July 2020

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