Pistorius shooting: South Africa has tight gun controls but a high level of gun violence

February 14, 2013

Paralympic superstar Oscar Pistorius, known as "Blade Runner" for his record-winning sprints on artificial legs, was charged Thursday with murder in the death his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, who was shot inside the runner's home.

Steenkamp's violent death has grabbed headlines because of the high-profile suspect and the graphic details -- she was shot four times in the head and the hand, the Telegraph reported. But even decades after apartheid ended and strong firearm controls were put in place, gun violence in South Africa is still commonplace.

“The question is: Why does this story make the news? Yes, because they are both celebrities. But this is happening on every single day in South Africa,” Adele Kirsten, a member of Gun Free South Africa, told the Associated Press. “We have thousands of people killed annually by gun violence in our country.”


Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius leaves the Boschkop police station, east of Pretoria, South Africa, on Thursday en route to appear in court. / AP

South Africa has a fairly average rate of gun ownership -- it's 50th in the world, with 12.7 guns for every 100 people. (In the United States., there are 88.8 guns for every 100 people.) You can see the difference on this map from the Guardian, which has an interactive version on their site:


Gun ownership rate. Screenshot: The Guardian

But South Africa also has one of the highest rates of gun homicides in the world -- more than 8,319 per year, with more than 45 percent of homicides attributed to firearms.


Homicides by firearm per 100,000 people. Screenshot: The Guardian

The lower rate of gun ownership is largely the result of the country's strict firearm regulations, which were enacted in the early 2000s in reaction to the violence that swept the country during the turbulent 1990s. Citizens are limited to one weapon for self-defense and a maximum of four others for uses such as hunting or skeet shooting. Gun owners must install a safe that meets police standards for gun storage and prove to police that they need a gun for self-defense.

As South Africa's Channel 4 news explains:

In order to legally own a gun in South Africa, first the prospective owner undergoes a thorough police background check, which involves an interview with the spouse or partner, as well as two other people. Then there is a competency requirement, which encompasses training, as well as a criminal record screening.

 

"On top of that, the police have the discretion to give a licence or not, and the applicant has to explain comprehensively why they have to own a firearm. Put it this way, it's a lot easier to get a shotgun licence in the UK than it is in South Africa," Mr. Hood told Channel 4 News.

But the country also has a long history of rapes, homicides and break-ins, and now many South Africans own firearms for peace of mind or for self-defense. South African gun-control advocates say some 2,000 legal guns there are stolen by criminals each month, which lessens the effectiveness of the gun controls and increases the likelihood of law-abiding citizens stocking up on weapons to use in case of an attack.

As the Guardian found:

A victims of crime report last year found that six out of 10 South Africans feared burglary more than any other crime and felt less safe in their homes than they did a year previously.

South African crime rates are actually declining, but the legacy of break-ins and murders is so strong than many urban South Africans still employ private security firms and arm themselves in case of intruders.

By some estimates, one of every two white South African households owned at least one firearm in the mid 1990s, and ownership rates continued to rise throughout the early 2000s.

"The teething problems in our democracy at this stage means that, unfortunately, we just have a very high level of violent crime," the South African Gunowner's Association Martin Hood told Channel 4. "The slight majority of people who own firearms own them for self defense."

Pistorius might have been more of a gun fan than most of his countrymen -- he reportedly kept a revolver by his bedside and a machine gun by his window, according to the Daily Mail. He also seems to be especially vigilant about defending his turf, telling a New York Times reporter in 2012 that when his security alarm once went off in the middle of the night, he "grabbed his gun and tiptoed downstairs" to search for the intruder.

And in a widely-circulated Tweet from November, Pistorius said he also mistook his dishwasher for an intruder:

South African police have since discredited earlier reports that Pistorius may have shot Steenkamp because he mistook her for a burglar. There were alleged reports of domestic disturbances at  Pistorius's home in the past. According to the Associated Press, Steenkamp has spoken out on Twitter against rape and other abuse against women.

Whatever prompted the fatal shooting, it's another act of tragic gun violence in a country that sees more of it than most.

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Caitlin Dewey · February 14, 2013