In gun-friendly South Africa, Pistorius’s pride in firearms fit right in

The Globe and Mail

A Nov. 4, 2012 photo shows South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp, believed to be his girlfriend, at an awards ceremony in Johannesburg. (Lucky Nxumalo-Citypress/AP)

Oscar Pistorius, like many South Africans, was proud of his guns. He had a pistol and an automatic rifle openly displayed in his home, according to a British journalist who visited him. When a U.S. writer visited, he took his 9 mm pistol and two boxes of ammunition to a firing range for target practice.

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Even his official sponsor, Nike, played on the gun theme. “I am the bullet in the chamber,” its advertising slogan said, showing the “Blade Runner” as he burst out of the starting block. (The slogan was pulled from his website after the murder charge on Thursday.)

By some estimates, up to six million South African civilians own guns – about 12 per cent of the population.

Many of those weapons are illegally owned. And of the legal guns, most are justified as a tool for self-defence.

It’s true that South Africa has a high rate of violent crime. But the fear of crime can verge into paranoia. Weapons are everywhere, and each gun justifies another gun.

South African airports and casinos have prominent signs directing people to storage rooms to deposit their weapons. Criminals assume that their victims have guns. When they break into a house, their first step is to search for the owner’s gun.

Guns are widely used in the most common crimes here: they are used in 77 per cent of house robberies and 87 per cent of business robberies, and they are the cause of death in more than half of all murders, reports say.

Fear of guns is why South Africa’s middle classes are hidden behind three-metre-high electrified fences and walls, in compounds with motion detectors and metal-barred doors. They hire security companies with gun-toting guards, who promise “immediate armed response” to every activated alarm.

But do the guns protect South Africans or increase the risks of accidental death, suicide, and crimes of passion?

It’s an issue that sparked emotional debates on radio shows and Internet forums on Thursday after the shocking news of the shooting death of Mr. Pistorius’s girlfriend.

In fact, South Africa might provide some of the strongest evidence that gun control can make a difference.

Tougher limits on gun ownership took effect in 2004, and since then the number of gun-related crimes has dropped by 21 per cent.

And this decrease is not merely because of a general decline in crime in South Africa. One study of female victims, by the country’s Medical Research Council, found that gun-related deaths had dropped by nearly half from 1999 to 2009, while other causes of violent death were virtually unchanged.