How to keep your wits in a trigger-happy world

Handgun-Concealed-in-Pants (2)

Is it guns who kill, or the people who use them? Gun advocates such as US president Donald Trump say it’s the latter. The scourge of gun-related killings in America and South Africa – the worst in the world – puts his words to a severe test. 

HATE him or love him, American president Donald Trump provokes debate on just about everything, the latest being his theatrical pro-gun speech to the National Rifle Association (NRA) on Friday. South Africans listening to it should be worried about guns in their own country, which comes second only to America on gun-related homicides per capita in the world.

Despite America’s shocking statistics on gun violence, Trump fiercely defended their right to own guns. America’s rate of gun violence exceeds all other developed countries – a 2016 study in the American Journal of Medicine found that Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun homicide than people in other wealthy countries. But Trump, insanely, advocates even more guns. To make his point, he quoted the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, where Islamist gunmen murdered staff at the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, shoppers at a Jewish supermarket, and others. If civilians were armed, he said, “it would have been a whole different story.” Can you just imagine the bloodbath?

Sadly, the rate of firearm-related killings in South Africa ranks just behind America, which has 10.2 deaths per 100,000 population – the highest in the world. South Africa has 9.4 per 100,000. Next on the list is Switzerland, way down at 3.84. These figures are from a study by American medical professionals based on data from 2010-2012.

Middle and upper class South Africans don’t experience this reality directly because they are shielded behind high walls and security guards in cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town, and lead a semblance of first-world lives. But if they read the papers they may be aware of the effect on poorer people in townships and elsewhere. Studies report that 18 people are shot and killed every day in South Africa.

In America, politics plays a huge role for Trump: the NRA, one of the country’s most politically powerful groups which can make or break politicians, zealously resists gun control. It is generally easier to be a legal gun owner “than it is to be a legal driver,” says David Hemenway, director of Harvard’s Injury Control Research Center.

South Africa’s new president Cyril Ramaphosa, promises to fix the country after the 9-year Zuma debacle. But he has enemies, and violence in SA society is deep-rooted and goes back decades. The figures are shocking: According to a 2014 report of the IEP (Institute for Economics and Peace) South Africa ranks as the 15th worst country worldwide for societal safety and security, and the 8th most violent, with a homicide rate – gun-related and others – of 31 per 100,000 people. Rates like this are generally found in countries with serious ongoing crises or at war.

Does a country with external threats risk higher internal violence because of stress? Not necessarily; Israel exists in a region of major violent conflicts along its borders, and continuous threats to annihilate it, but its rate of gun-related deaths, at 2.16 per 100,000 is extremely low compared to the 9.4 quoted above for SA.

The daily experiences of the two nations’ inhabitants reflect these figures. Israelis have no hesitation going out in the streets late at night, including young people, men and women. But drive through many neighbourhoods in South Africa and you’ll see the massive walls with barbed wire around the houses, and the cars of private security companies patrolling the streets. Go to almost any shopping centre at 9 at night, and you’ll find few people there, and entertainment facilities mostly closed by then.

Can South Africans repair their society? Trump has many followers in gun-happy America who want even more guns. Taking his cue and giving ‘innocent’ people more guns in South Africa would be madness. Yet how to stop it? It causes many of the best South Africans who can still leave, to do so.

GEOFF SIFRIN is a journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa, and former Editor of the SA Jewish Report. Email: 



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