A plea to find and destroy illegal weapons
In the Two Treatises of Civil Government‚ John Locke provides a detailed and compelling argument on the role of government.
He states that the primary function of a government is the protection of private property. A person’s property‚ acquired through their own toil or by association with a collective‚ must be protected from those who would seek to take or destroy it.
Although there are debates about whether this is the only function of government and the extent to which it can exercise this responsibility‚ there is consensus that government must indeed protect its citizens and their rights.
For purposes of this piece‚ at the risk of misrepresenting Locke’s argument‚ these rights could very well be said to include the right to dignity‚ safety‚ security and life.
A few weeks ago‚ I‚ together with millions of other people around the world‚ watched as the President of the United States‚ Barack Obama‚ shared tears over the senseless deaths of scores of people through ever increasing cases of mass shootings in the United States of America.
He found it difficult to control his emotions as he remembered the Sandy Hook massacre of children‚ as well as countless other gun-related incidences in the country since he moved into the White House.
A few days later‚ a video emerged of a heroic police officer in Cape Town who was short at by a criminal trying to rob him of his service gun. By some luck and quick reaction‚ the officer returned fire and survived the incidence with relatively minor injuries.
These two videos‚ although different in contexts‚ have one thing in common: they demonstrate the dangers of the prevalence of guns in society.
We could reasonably make the argument that guns are predominantly used for three things: the protection of citizens and their property by the state’s armed forces‚ self-defence by citizens‚ and as instruments of human rights violations by criminals.
Because of the high number of guns and the ruthlessness of the South African criminals‚ police also arm themselves in order to protect citizens. Unfortunately‚ this means they are‚ at times‚ the targets of criminals who wish to rob them of the service guns. As police officers are robbed of their weapons‚ citizens resort to purchasing guns as instruments of self-defence.
This in turn not only attracts the very attention of criminals‚ but also increases the risk of accidental domestic shootings.
It is a self-sustaining vicious circle‚ which points to one unfortunate fact: South Africa is a violent society and guns are at the very core of the violence.
According to the United Nations‚ South Africa has one the highest gun-related homicides rates in the world. The SAPS 2015 crime statistics indicate a 4.6% rise in murder rates and 8.5% rise in aggravated robbery rates.
Professor Lyn Snodgrass attributes this to “the increased use of illegal small arms and light weapons in the country’s problem with violent crime”. (Mail & Guardian‚ 14 October 2015)
The Times news publication of 27 January 2016 ran a story titled “SA going gun crazy”. The crux of the article is that the number of fatal shootings in the country‚ especially in gang-infested areas‚ has risen substantially in the past few years. And the demand for guns has also risen accordingly.
Accepting this fact leads to the conclusion that government is struggling to fulfil its responsibility of protecting its citizens against gun-related violence. So the logical conclusion here would be to simply demand that government finds and destroys illegal guns‚ and reduce the levels of licenced gun ownership in the country.
In November 2015‚ the Gun Free South Africa—in partnership with other organisations—praised as positive the effects of stricter gun laws in reducing gun violence in the country. Whilst the results of their research were commendable‚ the majority gun-related crimes were committed using unlicensed firearms.
A brief history of the country reveals the sources of these weapons. Over and above the many guns that were distributed amongst people in preparation for a civil/race war prior to 1994‚ a lot of weapons have been “stolen” from police. Whilst many have lost their lives for their service guns‚ it is no secret that some police officers have not only been giving guns to criminals‚ they have also been actively involved in gun-related crimes.
Consequently‚ any national disarmament project that does not begin with seriously addressing the involvement of the state’s armed forces’ personnel in criminal activities will not significantly reduce gun-related crimes in the country.
If the police are supposed to protect citizens‚ in the light of the above‚ who protects the citizens from the police? How does government ensure that police officers remain honest and committed to their responsibilities? And what are the factors that lead some police officers to be the perpetrators of gun violence?
We can ask these questions in the context of a relatively high number of domestic cases in which police officers have shot (mostly killed) their spouses‚ families and themselves. However‚ this is not to say that the police are solely responsible for the proliferation of guns and the increase of gun violence in the country.
For the gun laws to be truly effective and for the country to rid itself of this curse of gun violence‚ there must be a deliberate and well-executed plan to find and destroy illegal weapons.
This cannot be achieved purely on the basis of voluntary surrender of the guns on the part of the citizens‚ especially when citizens do not feel safe even from the police.
The security apparatus of the country must be mobilised to identify and‚ if necessary‚ conduct raids in order to recoup the guns. However‚ this requires political will‚ which seems to be limited on the part of government.
Australia and the United Kingdom provide important examples of what political will and well-executed gun control measures can achieve in significantly reducing gun-related crimes. Despite the differences in context‚ lessons can be drawn from these countries‚ which could help government fulfil its responsibility of protecting citizens.