Sarah Britten
Sarah Britten

Would stricter gun control have saved Reeva?

So Lulu Xingwana thinks we need better gun control. “Domestic violence is exacerbated by easy access to guns. We are making a call for stricter gun control,” she said at a media briefing last week. “As a country we need to wage a sustained and effective campaign against the availability of guns in our homes and streets.” Reeva would still be alive if there were no gun, she said, and she’s probably right. But would stricter gun control have saved her? I am not so sure.

For one thing, South Africa’s rules around private gun ownership are already very strict. You can’t walk into your local Makro and buy a gun. A background check isn’t sufficient, as it is in the US; you have to demonstrate that you can handle the weapon and are familiar with the rules regarding its safe and legal use.

Oscar obtained the 9mm pistol that killed Reeva Steenkamp legally. At the time he obtained it, there were no grounds to deny him a gun licence. Apparently, he was denied a licence in 2008 for reasons that aren’t clear, but received one in 2010. Perhaps if he’d had to complete a psychological assessment, there might have been a clue to the possibility that he’d shoot someone four times through a bathroom door, but there’s no way to know — not unless we engage the services of psychics as in The Minority Report, the 1956 Philip K Dick short story turned into a movie starring Tom Cruise.

Guns don’t kill people, people kill people goes the tired cliché beloved of the pro-gun crowd, but there is no doubt that guns increase the risk of fatalities significantly, even when the gun involved is legal and there is no immediate external threat. Guns are the leading cause of suicide in the US; there, gun-related suicides outnumber homicides.

Just last week it was reported that a Limpopo game farm manager succeeded in killing himself accidentally when the gun he’d left on top of a washing machine he was moving fell on the floor and fired a bullet into his stomach. The safety catch wasn’t on. Family members who’d flown out from the UK for his wedding will attend his funeral instead.

But here’s the awful, simple truth: the law, and the state, can’t be everywhere. Human beings are complex and flawed, and human relationships exponentially so. You can legislate against bad decisions, stupidity or just plain irrationality but you can’t prevent them from happening — we don’t always think of the consequences, we just act, and the law can only act with hindsight. Maybe Oscar was incubating the kind of paranoia or blind rage (depending on which version of events turns out to be what we accept as truth) that resulted in Reeva’s death, but there was no way to prove that, and no way to deny him a licence in 2010. As for the contention that his gun should have been taken away after he threatened to break someone’s legs — that is surely an entire legal process, one which can’t be based on hearsay. Magistrate Nair didn’t think any of these incidents made Oscar a danger to society. Would they have been enough to justify taking away his gun?

If the Oscars of this world can’t own guns, then neither can all of the responsible gun owners who don’t go around shooting innocent people. Let’s face it: the reasons for wanting to own a gun in South Africa are pretty compelling — perhaps not for someone like me, who lived with guns in the bedroom for years and hated them, for certainly those who do. So while the gun control debate seems like an easy target for government ministers looking for a convenient bandwagon to hitch a ride, the solution we’re looking for is far, far more complicated.

As it always is.

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