What is a ‘gun culture’ and does SA have one? – Jonathan Wright

The recent murders of two delivery drivers in Delft highlight the debate over South Africa’s firearm culture. This culture, which emphasizes personal responsibility and self-defence, contrasts sharply with criminal violence. While critics argue against firearms, evidence suggests that armed civilians can deter crime. Data from the US shows that defensive firearm use prevents many crimes, with felons often avoiding armed victims. South Africa has a muted but significant firearm culture among law-abiding citizens, who often live in fear of unchecked criminal violence. Advocates argue for a reassessment of firearm regulations to empower self-defence and ensure security for all.

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By Jonathan Wright*

In light of the recent heinous murders of two Sasko bread delivery drivers in Delft (the third deliveryman seems to have fortunately survived), some may raise an eyebrow at the mention of ‘gun culture’ in South Africa. I would like to assure them that they need not be so sceptical, as a culture of firearm ownership is quite different from what any criminal elements practice.

A firearm culture manifests as the honourable practice of affirming self-ownership and taking responsibility for one’s own security and that of their loved ones. At this point, it is more about a mindset than just the piece of plastic and metal on the belt, but I will emphasise the significance of the firearm in this article. It is a mindset in which a person accepts the immense responsibility and burden of being the best person they can be, rather than expecting someone else to do it on their behalf. 

There is no virtue in being a ‘harmless’ person. By definition, they cannot commit harm in any way, shape, or form. Instead, it is far more preferable to be the ‘peaceful’ person. The peaceful person is capable of violence, sometimes extreme, but they exercise exceptional discretion about when they can deploy it. Is a virtue in which they choose peace and non-confrontation as far as possible. Romans 12:18 tells all Christians (and broader society) to “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (ESV). 

These are the good and upstanding citizens of society. I deliberately avoid ‘law-abiding’, as that term carries a lot of baggage with it when laws are immoral or an injustice to people (obeying such laws cannot be a virtue). 

These citizens are the overwhelming majority of society, but they also tend to live in the shadow of the unscrupulous criminal who is not ‘peaceful’, and definitely not harmless. This brings us to what a firearm culture exists in opposition to.

This opposing situation, a criminal culture, is one in which a minority of individuals only use violence to further their own selfish ends. The firearm as a tool is irrelevant and means nothing of principle. It is merely a means to an end. Violent criminals are often indiscriminate and show little to no regard to a victim’s age, disabilities, or status in society. If there is no resistance, nothing stands in their way. They prey on, and pray for, harmless victims. 

Being motivated by their own selfish ends, they do however value self-preservation, and every reward needs a justifiable risk. The fact that criminality is so brazen only shows that the risk of confronting an otherwise good South African citizen is very low. They expect compliance, and it would seem that they often get it.

Contrary to the naysayers that insist on total submission as a viable path for the good citizen’s own self-preservation, and those that insist on firearms not being effective self-defence tools, is the homicide rate of 45.1 per 100,000. The 2022/2023 crime stats tell us that 27,500 people were murdered and 42,780 people were raped. One can only wonder how many of these unfortunates followed the ‘do not resist’ advice, or even had a chance. The successful defender at least earns the dubious privilege of merely being a victim of ‘attempted [insert criminal act here]’. 

How long before more South Africans take up that mantle of ultimate self-responsibility to become their ‘own first responder in an emergency’, as the safety and security consultant Gideon Joubert likes to say? He indirectly refers to the notion of firearm culture I have described. 

The United States Department of Justice conducted a survey on 100 convicted felons in 1985. They were interested how the mere thought of an armed civilian affected their criminal behaviour. The results were significant: 55-58% of the surveyed felons agreed (often strongly), that they took precautions to avoid confrontations as much as possible. They preferred to target vacant homes for burglary and commit other similar property crimes. A mere 24% agreed that ‘an armed civilian presents an exciting challenge’, while 74% did not.

US policy researcher Gary Kleck found that defensive firearm use was successfully deployed up to 2.5 million times in the US in 1980, equal to a possible 2,500 prevented murders. Professor Robert Cottrol quantified this in a 1998 article to say this translated to two prevented homicides per every additional 100,000 criminal attempts. Economists John Lott and Daid Mustard found that increased prevalence of concealed carry in municipal jurisdictions probably explained the drop in contact crimes by as much as 85% from year to year. Another US policy researcher, Gary Mauser, has found similar patterns. 

To answer the question posed at the start, yes, South Africa does have a firearm culture. It is muted, but it is there amongst the 3.5 million lawful privately owned firearms, and not nefarious or worthy of suspicion. In opposition, South Africa also has a culture of consequence free criminal violence.

To my own anecdotal knowledge, I am aware of many successful attempts at defensive firearm use. I am also sadly aware of one that was not, but not before dispatching all three-armed attackers. These peaceful individuals all decided that irrespective of what their fellow citizens do, they will make attempts on their life more expensive in a worst-case scenario, and accept the inherent risks of having a say in the outcome.

I firmly believe that we should stop listening to the clearly failed suggestions on how to ‘defend’ against crime (outright surrender is hardly ‘defending’). If a person believes they have the courage and fortitude to take up firearm ownership and the necessary mindset, they should do so. However, we must also be aware that many people simply cannot. They are discriminated against by politicians and ivory tower intellectuals living in gated communities who try make firearm ownership as expensive as possible. That is what the Firearms Control Act has done, and it is what the ANC said they wanted to do in 2000 after being egged on by now very outdated and out-of-touch ideologues. ‘Security for me, but not for thee’.

Firearm culture is finally largely about freedom of choice and respecting the decision about whether or not to arm oneself. We need to radically rethink our approach to firearm regulation, and broaden this strong and affirming culture that empowers individuals to be citizens, rather than mere subjects at the mercy of others.

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*Jonathan Wright is the CEO of the Firearms Policy Campaign NPC, and holds a BA LLB from Stellenbosch University. He is presently pursuing an LLD in public law from the same on the topic of South African firearm regulation.