Legal gun ownership is inversely correlated with gun crime

The Civilian Secretariat for Police Service, headed by police minister Bheki Cele, is proposing to prohibit firearm licences for the purposes of self-defence. Their reasoning, however, is flimsy and full of holes (bullet holes? – Ed) 

Last August, Koane Potlaki, accused in a house robbery case and allegedly involved in a farm attack, accosted a police officer and relieved him of his service pistol. He went to a farm north of Potchefstroom in the North West Province. There, he ambushed farmworkers, and forced them to lure the farmer to their location near a water tank. The 32-year-old farmer, who was a witness in the case against Potlaki, duly arrived, only to be shot in the chest by Potlaki. He returned fire, killing Potlaki. If he had not done so, Potlaki would certainly have finished the job of silencing the witness against him.

The story is recounted on News24 and collected in a small archive of similar stories of self-defence maintained by Safe Citizen, a public interest group which holds that lawfully armed citizens make themselves, their families and their communities safe. 

There is no data in South Africa on the use of firearms for self-defence. We simply don’t know how many people use legal firearms for this purpose and how such incidents turn out. We also don’t know how many legal firearms are used in the commission of crime. 

This absence of data suggests that the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service, of which police minister Bheki Cele is the head, has no empirical basis for proposing to remove self-defence as a valid reason for obtaining a firearm licence.

Eye-catching stats

This doesn’t stop anti-gun lobbies, like Gun Free South Africa, from citing a bunch of eye-catching factoids. For example, it claims: ‘South African research undertaken in two Johannesburg police precincts shows you are four times more likely to be shot at if you use your gun in self-defence.’ 

In the same media release, it states: ‘…the 1999 study conducted in two Johannesburg police precincts showed that you are 4 times more likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence when under attack.’

Another group, Gun Safe Cities, states: ‘you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence’.

All of these claims rely on a single survey conducted by Anthony Altbeker. 

‘No research backs widely shared statistic about gun ownership risk in South Africa,’ announced AfricaCheck, a fact-checking service. 

Altbeker’s study examined a mere 602 police dockets for gun-related crimes from Johannesburg suburbs Alexandra and Bramley, dating back to the first three months of 1997. 

It found that in 8% of those cases the victims were armed, and of those, nearly 80% of victims lost their guns to their attackers without being able to defend themselves. It also found that those who used their own gun to defend themselves were ‘four times more likely to have been fired upon by their attackers’.

Data quality issues

The latter statistic is used by Gun Free South Africa to make the claim that you’re less safe if you use a firearm to defend yourself. However, this ignores the fact that correlation does not imply causation. In fact, the causation may well run the other way: people who get shot at are more likely to use guns to defend themselves.

  Corruption in South Africa’s firearms registry puts guns and ammo in the hands of gangsters

It also doesn’t take into account the fact that many victims, who successfully deterred an attack by brandishing a firearm, may not have reported it to the police, knowing, as they do, that it is fairly useless to involve the police in any matter other than insurance claims or cleaning up after rioters.

Neither statistic is supported by any comprehensive or recent data. Extrapolating from a small number of cases in one or two suburbs to the entire country is not justifiable. There is no way to tell whether they are close to the average or whether they are statistical outliers. 

According to the AfricaCheck article, Altbeker revisited the question in a subsequent research report, this time commissioned by Gun Free South Africa. Although slightly more representative, it was also published more than 20 years ago, and suffers from what the author himself calls ‘data quality issues’. 

Of course, the possibility of being disarmed by an attacker is a real threat and should be a focus of firearm proficiency training, but it is not a justification for disarming all legal firearm owners a priori

Unarmed victims are just what criminals want.

A drop in the bucket

You’ll also hear that every year, some 10 000 licensed firearms, or thereabouts, are stolen. This, it is argued, contributes to the problem of illicit firearms. Cut off this supply and, they claim, you’re making inroads against the illegal use of firearms. 

This is arrant nonsense. While every firearm stolen is one firearm too many, they are often stolen from police officers, who are not about to be disarmed by law. What the anti-gun lobby also won’t tell you is that the number of stolen firearms is down from some 30 000 in 1998. 

More importantly, those firearm thefts are a drop in the bucket. According to the Small Arms Survey of 2018, there are approximately 5,4 million licensed and unlicensed firearms in circulation in South Africa. Of those about 3,2 million are licensed (based on 2015 numbers). 

So there are likely north of 2 million illegal weapons in South Africa (although this number is admittedly an estimate with very wide error margins – it could be as low as 500 000 or as high as 4 million). Assuming 2 million is a reasonable estimate, 10 000 stolen firearms represent 0.5% of the illegal guns in circulation and just over 0.3% of the stock of legal firearms. 

Arguing that firearm theft is the major driver of criminal firearm use in South Africa is spurious. If the government is concerned about illegal weapons, it should act to recover those weapons, instead of disarming law-abiding citizens and leaving them to face those illegal weapons unarmed.

South Africa is nowhere near the most-heavily armed population in the world. The top 25 countries by number of firearms per 100 population include, of course, the United States (120,5) and war-torn countries like Yemen (52,8), but also peaceful and relatively crime-free countries such as Canada (34,7), Austria (30), Norway (28,8), New Zealand (26,3), and Sweden (23,1). France and Germany come in at 19,6 respectively, the same as Iraq. Number 25 on the list is Luxembourg at 18,9 guns per 100 people. By contrast, South Africa has only 9,7 firearms per 100 population, fewer than half of that.

It is clear, then, that crime rates are not closely correlated to legal firearm ownership. On the contrary. 

Crime deterrent

In the US the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), published a report commissioned by President Barack Obama, in which it cited research suggesting ‘self-defence can be an important crime deterrent’, and also that ‘the association between self-defensive gun use and injury or loss to the victim have found less loss and injury when a firearm is used’.

‘Studies that directly assessed the effect of actual defensive uses of guns (i.e., incidents in which a gun was ‘used’ by the crime victim in the sense of attacking or threatening an offender) have found consistently lower injury rates among gun-using crime victims compared with victims who used other self-protective strategies,’ the report says.

This contradicts the view of the anti-gun lobby that owning a firearm for self-defence exposes you to greater risk than being unarmed.

The Police Secretariat’s poorly-drafted socio-economic impact assessment of the proposed bill makes a great number of unsupported statements and inferences, suggesting strong preconceived opinions.

For example, it claims that high levels of gun-related crime are caused by ‘increased availability and abuse of firearms’, which it says persists primarily because the Firearms Control Act ‘does not sufficiently limit the number of firearms’.

The millions of guns that are beyond the remit of the Firearms Control Act, because they are unlicensed in the first place, are a mere afterthought. Those are the weapons most often used in gun-related crimes, yet the Secretariat takes it as a given that restricting legal firearm ownership would reduce gun-related crime. This belief is not supported by any evidence.

It also cites the fact that murder rates in South Africa have steadily risen between 2011/12 and 2016/17, which it attributes in part to increasing availability of firearms. This ignores the fact that murder rates steeply declined between 1994 and 2011, and more importantly, ignores the fact that as the murder rate rose after 2011, the number of legal gun owners consistently decreased.

Murder vs gun ownership

It seems that legal gun ownership is inversely correlated with gun crime, which is the exact opposite of what the government’s documents appear to claim.

If anything, the rising murder rate since 2011 is likely attributable to a captured and deteriorating police force. 

Dubious data 

Perhaps one of the reasons for these weak claims is that the Secretariat’s own data gathering is pretty dubious and is in part reliant on the anti-gun lobby. 

Its 2016 White Paper on Safety and Security, for example (available in full only on the website of Safer Spaces, an NGO that helped develop and implement it), sources statistics about firearm licence issuance to Gun Free South Africa documents. Does the Secretariat not have direct access to its own Central Firearms Registry?

There are also other questionable citations in that White Paper. In one case, it references data from 2009 and 2011 to a book by Robert Chetty that was published in 2000. This book, according to Ludwig Churr, head of research at Safe Citizen, does not itself give any data sources.

Personal safety

The National Development Plan 2030 states: ‘Personal safety is a human right. It is a necessary condition for human development, improved quality of life and enhanced productivity. When communities do not feel safe and live in fear, the country’s economic development and the people’s wellbeing are affected…’

The Police Secretariat uses this passage to support its view that it has a mandate to remove firearms off the streets, starting not with illegal guns, but with legal firearm owners. 

In truth, that passage suggests that law-abiding citizens have a right to defend their own personal safety, and that of their communities, especially in a country where the police is grossly derelict in its duty to secure safety for its citizens.

The anti-gun activists are a small, if vocal, minority. A News24 poll found 89% of respondents believed citizens ought to be able to use firearms to protect themselves, while only 11% think it leads to increased availability and abuse of firearms.

Unfortunately, their blinkered ideology has found favour with the Secretariat, since it plays perfectly into the hands of authoritarians, central planners, looters, and expropriating socialists. Can’t have people defending their land with guns when the government comes to take it, now can we?

It is time for the rest of us, the 89% – whether or not we personally own firearms – to stand against this gross violation of civil rights.