Oscar Pistorius Shooting: How Strict Are South Africa’s Gun Laws?

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A young gang member shows a gun and ammunition, in Bonteheuwel neighborhood in Cape Town, on November 17, 2012

The paralympian Oscar Pistorius has been charged with murder by a South African court following the death of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, from gunshot wounds at his home within a gated Pretoria housing estate. The woman sustained wounds to her head and the upper body, and was reported to have been shot four times. A 9mm pistol was recovered from the scene.

According to Gunpolicy.org, there are just under 6 million licensed firearms in South Africa, which has a population of around 50 million. In a nation notorious for its high level of violent crime and where many people live in fear of home invasions, most South Africans who keep guns do so for personal security. A Daily Mail article in 2011 noted that Pistorius kept a machine gun and a pistol in his bedroom.

South Africa’s Firearms Control Act came into force in 2000, following a decade which saw a huge spike in gun-related homicides. People applying for gun licenses now undergo rigorous checks, which take into account issues like a person’s temper, recurring issues of violence, abuse of alcohol. Interviews with spouses are also carried out. Also, a bill which seeks to give police extra powers to arrest anyone carrying a dangerous weapon in public was introduced into parliament this week.

“We’ve got good gun legislation,” Alan Storey, chairman of anti-firearm group Gun Free South Africa (GFSA), told TIME. “What has been less than perfect has been the implementation of that gun legislation.”

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There is a huge backlog in gun license applications, putting the body that administers licenses under pressure — which can lead to negligence. An example: in March 2012, it was reported that notorious underworld figures Mikey Schultz and Nigel McGurk had been reissued with firearm licenses, despite having confessed to the 2005 murder of mining tycoon Brett Kebble (Schultz and McGurk were given immunity from prosecution for the murder because they agreed to testify against the alleged mastermind).

Asked whether gun control is adequate, Gun Owners of South Africa (GOSA) executive Wouter de Waal told TIME: “The state attempts to control guns. It’s a lengthy and costly process to obtain a gun license. On the other hand it’s dead easy to buy an AK-47 off the streets. That’s the problem with gun control. It only controls law-abiding people.” There are around 2,000 guns stolen from legal gun owners in South Africa every month, said Alan Storey. “There needs to be a sense of outrage that the legal gun owners are the pool where illegal guns come from,” he said.

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The specific crime Pistorius stands accused of is increasingly rare in South Africa. A study carried out by the South African Medical Research Council showed that between 1999 and 2009 the proportion of gun homicides committed by a woman’s “intimate partner” (defined as her current or ex-husband or boyfriend, same sex partner or a rejected would-be lover) almost halved. The study notes that this is most likely due to the gun control legislation implemented since 2000.

Storey feels that the gun lobby in South Africa invokes narratives similar to those propagated by the National Rifle Association in the U.S. “I believe, and GFSA believes, that it actually uses the crime situation in South Africa as a smokescreen for its real ideology. And if you’re familiar with the NRA in America, their ideological basis for carrying firearms is the right to be armed, according to their constitution, to defend yourself against the government. But that policy would never fly in this country, around the sensitivity of being anti-government, but they would hide behind the crime level.”

Regarding the use of guns for self-defense, GOSA executive member Richard Boothroyd told TIME: “A gun is the only practical tool for protection against violence.  There is a great deal of that in South Africa, which has one of the world’s highest levels of homicide, rape and robbery. But let me stress that I do not accept that crime should exceed any specific level before gun ownership is considered justified.  I do not accept that it needs to be justified at all, but aside from that, the most peaceful of societies are not free of violence, so a gun is a sensible insurance anywhere, anytime.”

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