Africa

Oscar Pistorius and South Africa's gun obsession

Pistorius (file photo) Image copyright AFP

The judgement by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein that convicted Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius of murder sends a message that South Africa does not tolerate the reckless use of guns.

As Judge Eric Leach said when he read the judgment, "not only did he not know who was behind the door, he did not know whether that person in fact constituted any threat to him.

"In these circumstances, although he may have been anxious, it is inconceivable that a rational person could have believed he was entitled to fire at this person with a heavy-calibre firearm."

One of the many things we learnt during the seven-month trial, was Pistorius' obsession with firearms.

The prosecution played a video clip showing the six-time Paralympic gold medallist shooting at a watermelon and remarking "it's not as soft as brains… but it's a zombie stopper".

The court was also told that Pistorius and his friends fired a shot inside a family restaurant in Johannesburg in 2013.

There are approximately 1.8 million registered gun owners in South Africa, which has an adult population of roughly 38 million.

The country's gun culture among both black and white communities can be traced back to the apartheid era.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The number of gun owners has increased significantly since the end of apartheid in 1994

During the height of white-minority rule in the early 1960s, political organizations such as the African National Congress embarked on an armed liberation struggle and formed uMkhonto weSizwe, the Spear of the Nation.

This was beginning of the love affair of anti-apartheid activists with the AK47.

To this day, many black people perceive the Kalashnikov as a symbol of liberation.

The liberation movements said they took up arms because the apartheid government encouraged white citizens to arm themselves against "die swart gevaar" (the black threat).

The authorities instilled a fear that there was something lurking in the shadows, that somehow marauding black crowds would come and take over their prized possessions.

This is how ordinary suburban men acquired guns to protect their families.

However, some of these weapons have ended up in wrong hands and are increasingly being used in armed robberies.

Illegal firearms have proliferated in poor communities, where the vast majority of gun-related deaths occur.

Under apartheid, black people were not allowed, by law, to own guns.

But that all changed in 1994 when racial segregation ended and black people used their newly found constitutional rights, including to obtain firearm licences.

This increased the number of gun owners significantly.

And so it became necessary for tighter gun control laws to be introduced, such as the Firearms Control Act.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Oscar Pistorius said he fired his gun because he feared there was an intruder in the house

This made it harder for individuals to obtain gun licences. But furthermore, it outlines stricter rules for when a person can use their firearm, even in self-defence.

For example, if someone is climbing over the fence into your property, you do not have the right to shoot them.

Pistorius said he fired because he thought there was an intruder in his house.

Judge Leach said a rational person could not fire a high-calibre firearm "without taking even that most elementary precaution of firing a warning shot, which the accused said he elected not to fire as he thought the ricochet might harm him.

"The accused must have foreseen and, therefore, did foresee that whoever was behind the toilet door might die, but reconciled himself to that event occurring and gambled with that person's life," the judge added.

Unlike in the US, South Africa does not have in its constitution the right the bear arms.

Lobby group Gun Free South Africa says that you are four times as likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence, based on research undertaken in 2000 and 2009.

The organisation's Adele Kirsten told me: "The gun that was meant to protect him [Pistorius] and Reeva [Steenkamp] from external danger was used to kill the person he loved."


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When I asked South African Gunowners Association (Saga) about the impact of the Pistorius verdict on their members, it said it welcomed the judgement.

"The ruling does not change anything for us," Saga's Trust chairman, John Welch, told me.

Mr Welch emphasised: "The court ruling reaffirms our position that there are certain parameters under which a person can use a firearm," implying that Pistorius went beyond the rules.

However, gun-related deaths are actually falling in the country.

A study found that in 1998, there were 26,500 murders in South Africa, 48% of which were gun-related.

But by 2009, this had fallen to 17,000 murders, and 34% were gun-related.

It is to be hoped that this trend will continue and this highly publicised tragedy will in future cause some of those who would have been reckless with their firearms to pause and think before they pull the trigger.