South Africa: After more fatal shootings, access to firearms under scrutiny

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Monday, 18 July 2022 15:10

The deaths of 19 people in bar shootings have reignited the debate on access to weapons.

The scene described by the police minister is straight from a war. “More than 130 empty AK-47 cartridges were found, which shows that these people were determined to kill,” Bheki Cele said outside the Soweto tavern in the aftermath of the massacre that left 15 people dead and several injured. None of the five assailants have been found and the motive for the shooting remains unknown. The same evening in a tavern in Pietermaritzburg, KwaZulu-Natal, another killing by two men left four dead.

Both killings led police to the same conclusion. “We have a problem with the proliferation of guns,” said provincial commissioner Elias Mawela. “We didn’t have as many murders in the past but now we are showing our worst face due to the high homicide rate,” the lieutenant general lamented.

Proliferation

“The first three months of this year have been violent, brutal and dangerous for many South Africans,” the police minister said when he released the crime statistics for early 2022. The number of murders has risen by 22% compared to 2021. Drinking places, such as taverns, are the third most common environment for murders.

Alcohol consumption alone does not explain this violence. “Easy access to guns makes this possible,” says Adele Kirsten of the NGO Gun Free South Africa, who says 23 people die from gunshot wounds every day in the country. In recent months, the activist has noted a change in the pattern of gun crime. “We used to have a high homicide rate, but it was usually related to gang warfare or settling of scores between individuals. But in the last 18 months or so, we’ve seen mass shootings. One explanation could be that guns and big guns are more accessible,” says Kirsten.

Anti-gun activists explain that the legal market (3 million registered guns in South Africa according to a 2017 estimate) inevitably feeds the illegal market (2.35 million). Guns are stolen in robberies, lost or taken out of cabinets and sold by corrupt police, private security and military officers. “Every illegal weapon was legal in the first place,” says Kirsten, who is calling for tougher gun carry laws for individuals in order to stem the flow.

On the other hand, pro-gun activists fear that the government will use this tragedy to tighten the gun control law. One bill – which appears to be frozen – proposes to end the self-defence criterion as a valid reason for obtaining a licence. This is disproportionate to the public threat, according to pro-gun campaigner Ian Cameron. “Citizens are not the ones who own AK-47s, it’s criminals,” argues this director of the community safety programme for the Cape Town-based Action Society. “I believe very strongly that citizens should have the right to defend themselves, whether it’s with guns or otherwise,” says Cameron.

Pulling together

The young man made his point last week by publicly accusing the police minister of inaction. “None of the people in this room, when they see their neighbour being slaughtered in the street tonight, are going to care about your nonsense,” said Cameron. After a heated exchange, Bheki Cele finally shouted at him to shut up and sit down. The interaction was filmed and shared on social networks. Today Cameron is calling for Cele’s resignation. It wouldn’t change anything, says Adele Kirsten for whom “the problem is systemic”.

The Pietermaritzburg and Soweto killings came a year after the July 2021 riots sparked by the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma. Eight days of violence and looting left 354 people dead and R50 billion worth of damage, but no one was convicted. The impunity that some criminals seem to enjoy exasperates the population. Their distrust of the police and the judiciary can only increase when cases of this magnitude come to nothing.

“The police are going to be under pressure,” says Jenni Irish-Qhobosheane, author of a report on the illegal firearms market for the NGO Global Initiative. She says it is necessary to arrest the suspects, successfully prosecute them, find out who hired them in the event of a contract and, above all, trace the firearms. She believes that law enforcement agencies are not doing enough to stem the flow of their own weapons into the illegal market.

In his message of condolence to the victims, President Cyril Ramaphosa called on the government, citizens and civil society to work together to “reduce crime and eradicate the illicit flow of firearms”. The self-defence reflex that these two killings may provoke could have the opposite effect. The aftermath of the July 2021 riots, for example, saw an increase in the sale of arms and ammunition.

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