OPINION | Nicholas Lorimer, Terence Corrigan: We'll never be like Japan - response to Adriaan Basson

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Forensic pathology service vehicles waiting outside Nomzamo Tavern in Orlando East last month to collect bodies of patrons killed. PHOTO: Ntwaagae Seleka/News24
Forensic pathology service vehicles waiting outside Nomzamo Tavern in Orlando East last month to collect bodies of patrons killed. PHOTO: Ntwaagae Seleka/News24

Nicholas Lorimer and Terence Corrigan write that while they agree with Adriaan Basson's view that South Africans have an 'obscene' relationship with firearms, they disagree that Japan could be a model for the country.

Adriaan Basson is correct to state that the spate of tavern attacks cannot be blamed on liquor. By all appearances, the attacks were planned to inflict causalities. Why this was done will, hopefully, be revealed in investigations.

"We have a massive problem with the proliferation of guns, and the government needs to take urgent steps to address this," Basson writes. He urges 'harsh gun control measures' which suggest banning everyone except professional sports shooters and hunters, and police officers from owning firearms. 

His point of reference is Japan, in the news itself recently, as a result of the assassination of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. 

READ | ANALYSIS: Craig Mark - Shooting of Shinzo Abe is a huge shock for Japan and the world

While it is reasonable to discuss the impact of the availability of guns on crime, it's doubtful that the proposed solution would have the effect that Basson hopes for. 

To get a sense of how South African gun ownership ranks globally, we turn to the Small Arms Survey database, which covers 230 countries and territories worldwide.

In its latest iteration, from 2017, the United States tops the list, with 393.35 million firearms, or a rate of ownership of 120.5 per 100 people. Taiwan, and Indonesia, are near the bottom, with levels of ownership so low that their rates are 0.0. Japan holds the 219th spot, with a rate of 0.2. 

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On this index, civilian gun ownership in South Africa is actually comparatively modest.

At some 5.35 million (of which 3 million are registered and the balance unregistered), the overall ownership rate is 9.7 per 100, at 89th position. This puts it ahead of Lesotho (4.8), Brazil (8.3) and Jamaica (8.8) – but also far behind Finland (32.4), Switzerland (27.6), Sweden (23.1) and Venezuela (18.5).

Gun ownership does not equal murder

Murder patterns, however, do not neatly follow gun ownership. The World Bank's database provides statistics on 'intentional homicide' across countries. South Africa's rate per 100 000 is an appalling 33.5 (rounded) in 2020. Japan's is at 0.3, one of the lowest on earth (recent data for the five countries with a 0.0 rate of gun ownership are not provided). 

The US murder rate was 6.5 in 2020 – very high by the standards of developed countries, but less than a fifth of South Africa's and interestingly showing an overall decline from 9.3 in 1990 even as gun laws have relaxed across many states. Finland, Switzerland and Sweden, with relatively high levels of gun ownership, had murder rates of 1.6, 0.5 and 1.2, respectively. Venezuela, with nearly double the ownership rate of South Africa, also has a considerably higher murder rate, at 49.9 (2017 figure). 

Jamaica, where a very 'harsh' firearm control regime exists (most guns in civilian hands are illegally owned, and Jamaica even has a dedicated and controversial Gun Court to deal with firearms offences), has a murder rate of 44.9.

READ | IN-DEPTH: Tavern shootings - Will stricter gun laws help curb murders? We ask the experts

The availability or otherwise of guns is not a great gauge for violent crime. This argument is what social scientists call a univariate analysis – a single-factor investigation that will inevitably understate numerous other contributors. True, some highly-armed jurisdictions suffer from high rates of murder, but interestingly, some of the world's most secure societies are among the more highly armed. To be clear, correlation does not imply causation and even establishing serious correlation requires looking at the nature of weapons owned since some guns are simply not suited for criminal purposes.

Besides all that, Japan is an inferior point of comparison for South Africa. 

Japan is an outlier in terms of violence, being one of the most peaceful countries on earth, irrespective of whether guns are a factor or not. In raw numbers, Japan's 120 million-plus people suffer close to 1000 murders each year, as opposed to over 21 000 South Africans murdered, despite our population being half the size. Whatever the means employed, the Japanese simply commit less violence than we do – or for that matter, than the Americans, Swedes or Venezuelans.

Japan's criminal justice system is also sharply different. South Africa struggles to convict accused persons in murder cases, with only around 20% ending in a conviction. Japan, by contrast, has a remarkable 99% conviction rate. Critics claim this comes from a system that is extremely 'harsh' overall. The Economist observed that this includes extensive periods of detention without charge, with limited access to legal help, along with intense interrogation, sometimes involving physical force, and sleep deprivation. The apparent goal is to extract confessions, and 89% of all criminal prosecutions in 2014 in Japan relied on an admission by the suspect. Japan is an outlier among developed countries in its nationwide use of capital punishment.

It is also an island state (a factor in controlling its borders) and has a rapidly ageing population. 

Distinct history and culture

It also has a distinct culture and history. Japan began disarming its civilian population 500 years ago to forestall any challenge to the feudal overlords. In 1588, when Toyotomi Hideyoshi – Japan's Great Unifier– ordered the confiscation of arms held by commoners. The decree read in part: 'The people in the various provinces are strictly forbidden to have in their possession any swords, short swords, bows, spears, firearms or other arms. The possession of unnecessary implements makes difficult the collection of taxes and tends to foment uprisings.'

After the Second World War, a strong pacifist cultural current helped cement the firearms control regime into contemporary law and enforced it by an efficient (and intrusive) civil service and police force. With little tradition of firearm ownership in Japan, the country being a safe and orderly place, this was never a major public issue.

None of this applies to South Africa.

South Africa's firearms control regime is not permissive. If – as media reports suggest – an AK rifle was used in one of the tavern attacks, it bears noting that this is classed as a 'restricted firearm'. It is possible for a civilian to acquire one but under very limited and burdensome circumstances. It is easier and cheaper to seek one out on the country's large underground market, either from stocks long existing, or brought in by traffickers. South Africa has long, poorly secured borders, including with one effectively failed state and another experiencing insurgency.

READ | OPINION: Marco van Niekerk - Gun Control Bill: The practicalities of civilian disarmament

South Africa struggles to implement its current firearms legislation and has not, for example, managed to implement such innovations as a transfer to a digital system, envisioned by the Firearms Control Act (FCA). Our police are overstretched, and corruption is a debilitating problem – and a major source of guns to criminal groups.

Indeed, a study done by the Policy Development & Research Unit of the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service in 2014 on the effect of the FCA found that the Act had little effect on crime levels and almost all reduction in crime during the middle of this period could be attributed to better policing.

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Nor, unfortunately, can the state plausibly claim to offer protection to its people. A year ago, it effectively lost control of swathes of the country. Journalist Rebecca Davis, hardly a gun advocate, was moved to comment: "What is the point of a government, when we know that it was private security and ordinary civilians who held the line this past week?"

These were civilian gun owners.

All of which answer's Basson's question, 'Why can't we follow suit?'

We concur with Basson that some South Africans have an 'obscene' relationship with firearms. Altering that, though, would be a complicated project, and not one for which Japan could be a model.

- Nicholas Lorimer and Terence Corrigan are analysts at the Institute of Race Relations.

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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