A few months back I stumbled across a documentary that followed a pair of paramedics in and around Johannesburg, South Africa. The documentary focused on the disparity between rich and poor, those without the ability to pay and those with the ability to pay well, and the differences in how fast and how well they were treated for their injuries. As I was gearing up for my ambulance shift last night I was remembering one scene in particular from that documentary, and then it hit me. It wasn’t about wealth at all — it was about the failure of gun control…
In South Africa citizens have the ability to own guns, not the right. That ability comes after a citizen passes a competency test, a background check, and many other “ill defined” (as Wikipedia puts it) criteria. Even after passing the requirements the licensing process can still take 2 years. Even those who already owned firearms needed to re-register them and comply with the new law. Thanks to the lengthy application process and incompetence (or willful denial) on the part of the government in processing those applications legal guns are almost nonexistent. The New York Times reported on one South African gun store in 2005:
South Africa has a new gun-ownership law, and since it took effect on Aug. 1, Redneck Tactical Supplies, one of two firearms shops in this rather proper, white-picket-fence beach town, has applied to the government for ownership certificates for about 250 prospective buyers.
“So far, we have yet to receive one certificate,” Botha said.
The new gun law has weapons dealers and users up in arms, so to speak. Firearms sales, once 15,000 a month, have fallen to near zero, because of the law’s regulatory hurdles and the glacial government bureaucracy that oversees them.
The law, approved in 2000, limits most citizens to one weapon for self-defense and a maximum of four others for other uses, like hunting or skeet shooting.
I’m sure those words brought a tear of joy to the NY Times’ editors, seeing what was possible in a “civilized” society where guns were illegal. The issue is that violent crime didn’t go down — it went up following the enactment of new laws.
Murder has always been big in South Africa. The mid-nineties saw a murder rate of 66.9 per 100,000, a number which has since dropped to 37.3 per 100,000 in 2009. While that may seem like a much lower number keep in mind that the United States sees a murder rate of 4.8 per 100,000 as of 2010. So think about all of the “gun violence” the Brady Campaign is complaining about in the United States and imagine it happening almost eight times as much. That’s not necessarily a fair comparison due to the different social and economic climate of the two nations but it does give you a good idea of how common murders are.
While the murder rate may have dropped it’s the other crimes that are more unnerving.
Rapes are so frequent in South Africa that 1/3 of the women interviewed by the Community of Information, Empowerment and Transparency said they had been raped in the last year. The country is commonly referred to as the “rape capital of the world,” ranking first in the world according to the United Nations for rapes per capita.
Carjackings are also extremely common in South Africa despite the low rate of car ownership. One insurance company no longer issues insurance to people who drive certain models, and people often disregard traffic signals in places where carjackings are common in order to get out of the area quicker.
Those are just the most obvious examples of crime in South Africa, and the regularity with which violent crimes are committed combined with the inability for the inept police force to react effectively and immediately have led people to live in gated communities, barricade their homes, and hire private security to protect them. In short, people live in fear from the moment they wake up until the moment they fall asleep.
I was remembering the scene where the camera crews followed one of the female EMTs in her morning routine (hence the connection to my own preparations) and discussing the many security measures she takes just to go outside and drive around when the realization hit me that the reason why people live in fear isn’t because of the division between rich and poor but because of the unavailability of legal firearms.
Go watch the video at the top of this article and then try to tell me that none of the situations where someone’s personal defense were endangered would have been solved by the victim having a firearm. Illegal guns are everywhere, easy to obtain and used with alarming regularity (the opening shots show an illegal gun at a poorly controlled scene which had just been used to shoot someone) but law abiding citizens must instead resort to spending whatever money they make trying to buy themselves some security.
Despite their best efforts to secure themselves using gated communities and private security crime still happens and people still live in fear. One example from the documentary is where one of the paramedics gets a call from his girlfriend that someone is trying to break into the house and he has to rush home, worrying the entire time whether she was dead or alive and if she was okay. Police did not arrived in time, and while the would-be burglar ran away in this instance it was the fact that his significant other had no significant way of protecting herself that left her open to attack.
Even though murder rates have dropped precipitously in the last few decades in South Africa the rate at which people are assaulted physically and sexually have steadily been on the rise and are the worst in the world. Criminals are preying on the weak and the helpless and the government is powerless to stop the violence. Those who can afford personal protection live comfortably while everyone without a paid trigger puller or ten following them around live in fear and certain that another attack is imminent, and law abiding citizens aren’t given the ability to defend themselves. Guns serve as an effective deterrent as well as an effective means of stopping crimes in progress, and where guns are only in the hands of criminals crime reigns supreme.
South Africa is the poster child for a country where gun control has ruined the nation. Only criminals have guns, and only the wealthy can defend themselves. For the other 99% South Africa is a world of pain and suffering that could have been solved by recognizing the natural right of people to defend themselves and own firearms, but instead it has already slid far down the slippery slope of gun control.
Gun control in South Africa has forced people to live in fear for their lives, their well being and their property. Gangs and criminals rule the streets. It’s a pattern we’ve seen again and again in Mexico, South America and Africa where the inability for legal citizens to own guns and defend themselves and the inability for a country to police its streets has left the door wide open for criminals who don’t care about gun laws to take advantage of the weak and the poor law abiding citizen. And the best way to see it all firsthand is through the eyes of a paramedic.
That’s the world gun control advocates want for us.
And that’s when I finally understood the title of the film, an old Chinese proverb. “Tell me and I’ll forget; show me and I may remember; involve me and I’ll understand.” I understand.