Adriaan Basson, in that charmingly naïve way he has, reckons harsh gun control measures, including banning guns for self-defence, will prevent tavern shootings. 

The editor-in-chief of News24, Adriaan Basson, penned an emotion-laden whimsy (paywalled) in which he claims that the cause of South Africa’s recent spate of tavern shootings is guns, not booze.

He is, of course, correct that booze is not the cause of the tragic shootings in which 15 people were murdered in Mdlalose Tavern in Soweto’s Nomzamo Park, four people were killed in Samkelisiwe Tavern, in Sweetwaters, Pietermaritzburg, and two were left dead in Mputlane Inn Tavern in Katlehong. 

In the wake of the shootings, ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe made an extraordinary statement, saying that police are not responsible for the safety of patrons of venues that sell alcohol.

He might have had a point if alcohol were illegal, or the venues were unlicensed, but citizens who are breaking no laws have every right to expect the protection of the country’s police service.

Apparently, the evils of alcohol was a hot topic on talk radio in the wake of the tavern shootings, to which journalist and broadcasting lecturer Jeff Moloi aptly responded: ‘Why are radio stations discussing SA’s drinking problem? Were the gunmen drunk?’

‘In not even one of these incidents was the allegation made that alcohol led to the gunmen randomly shooting at innocent patrons,’ Basson writes.

The better argument would have been that one cannot blame crime on inanimate objects. Millions of people consume alcohol and don’t turn into mass murderers, so alcohol is not a sufficient causal factor for crime.

Simplistic

Unfortunately, Basson then jumps to another equally simplistic kneejerk blame-the-object argument, as he asks ‘How many innocent people must be mowed down before we consider much harsher gun control legislation in South Africa?’

He says that ‘there is simply no time to probe the causes of these shootings and the causes of poor policing’.

Instead, ‘[i]t is time that we urgently talk about gun control and consider introducing very strict laws about gun ownership in South Africa.’

The ‘harsh gun control measures’ he has in mind should include ‘an amnesty period for anyone who is not a professional hunter, shooter or police officer, to hand in their firearms for destruction’. 

This amnesty will have to be implemented by an independent structure, because of distrust in the police, he says. 

He continues: ‘The gun lobby’s argument that you have the right to own a gun for self-defence cannot outweigh the endemic crisis we have with firearm violence.’ 

Self-defence can absolutely outweigh the ‘endemic crisis we have with firearm violence’. Armed self-defence, whether personal or outsourced to a security company, is the only defence against armed violence, especially when the ruling party says it isn’t the police’s job to protect civilians from armed criminals.

No evidence

He cites no evidence for the claim that, ‘[v]ery often, legal firearms of victims are used against them or others by criminals’.

In part, that is because no systematic evidence beyond anecdotes exists for such a claim. But let’s try cobble some facts together nonetheless.

According to Guy Lamb, a criminologist in the Department of Political Science at Stellenbosch University, about 10 000 firearms are stolen from civilians annually, for a total of 300 000 stolen firearms since the mid-1990s. 

In 2015, the most recent year for which I could find data, there were 3,2 million registered, legal guns in private hands. 

So in fact, only 0.3% of privately-owned firearms get stolen every year, and less than 10% of the total number of legal, private firearms ever made it into criminal hands. 

Meanwhile, the police cannot even track its own firearms, because it stopped paying for its internal gun ownership permit system. 

It is impossible to count the number of illegal firearms in South Africa. Existing estimates are almost 20 years old, and vary between 500 000 and 4 million. The global Small Arms Survey estimates South Africa’s civilian gun ownership at 5 351 000, of which 3 million are legal.

This gives us an intermediate illegal firearm ownership estimate of 2 351 000. The 300 000 guns believed to have been stolen from private civilians hardly makes a dent in that number. 

South Africa has always been awash with firearms, thanks to its history of political violence. Thirty years ago, I recall reading a story about buying an AK-47 on the border of Swaziland (now eSwatini) for R50. Ammunition was more expensive than the weapons themselves.

There are millions of illegal firearms in South Africa. 

Extortion

Basson’s own newspaper quoted unnamed experts who believed that extortion was behind the tavern shootings. 

This turns senseless shootings in which guns are to blame into shootings that make perfect sense, and in which protection rackets run by crime gangs are to blame. 

Basson would rather we do nothing about this, because we don’t have time to ‘probe the causes of these shootings and the causes of poor policing’.

Yet without understanding the causes, we cannot hope to address the problem. 

How does Basson propose to accost entrenched, sophisticated criminal gangs and convince them to surrender their weapons? 

How does he think that disarming people who need firearms for the defence of their persons, their families, their homes and their shops will help in mopping up those millions of illegal firearms? 

And in Basson’s ideal gun-free world, does he think extortion won’t happen? Gangs running protection rackets can just as easily extort their take by using petrol bombs, or causing food poisoning, or any number of other violent means. Read up on the death toll of nightclub fires if you think they can’t be as bad as gun violence.

In the absence of comforting lies, here’s the bald truth: the only way to neutralise crime gangs is by better policing. 

Since even Basson knows that this is a laughable prospect, law-abiding citizens will need either armed response services or be personally armed in order to defend themselves from the criminals who own the illegal half of South Africa’s weapons. 

Naïve

Basson’s anti-gun whimsy is as idealistic as those songs for world peace we all know. Only those who are truly disconnected from reality, whether by their elite position in society or by psychedelic drugs, would believe that calling for world peace will actually bring it about.

Likewise, only truly naïve elitists could believe that confiscating legal guns will make any difference to the crimes committed with millions of illegal guns. 

Perhaps we should invite Basson to move to a gang-ridden township and open a shop, and then tell us a year later if he still doesn’t understand the causes of gun violence, or believe in guns for self-defence.


contributor

Ivo Vegter is a freelance journalist, columnist and speaker who loves debunking myths and misconceptions, and addresses topics from the perspective of individual liberty and free markets. Follow him on Twitter, @IvoVegter.