South African missionary and author Charl Van Wyk says law-abiding citizens have the "right and duty" to bear firearms to protect themselves and their loved ones. In his book, Shooting Back, hemakes the argument based on his unique experience:First, he's been working for almost two decades in some of the most dangerous places on earth. And second, Van Wyk is a survivor of one of South Africa's most notorious criminal attacks. At the time, police credited him with saving many lives when he opened fire on the assailants with his personal revolver. In the final installment of our series on informative books focusing on Africa, VOA has this report on Van Wyk's book and his views.
"Grenades were exploding in flashes of light. Pews shattered under the blasts, sending splinters flying through the air. An automatic assault rifle was being fired and was fast ripping the pews – and whoever, whatever was in its trajectory – to pieces. We were being attacked!"
This is just one of many dramatic extracts from Shooting Back, a publication that seeks to make a convincing argument in favor of people's right to own guns.
Charl Van Wyk's book revolves around an incident that's known in South Africa as the St. James Church Massacre. On a winter's evening in 1993, four men burst into the church in a Cape Town suburb while the 1,500-member congregation was listening to a choir.
"They had hand grenades with them; they'd attached nails (to the grenades) to (allow the devices to distribute) more shrapnel. They had automatic assault rifles with them. They threw the hand grenades into the congregation, and they started shooting indiscriminately in amongst the people sitting in the church," Van Wyk, a devoted Christian and passionate pro-gun lobbyist, recalls.
He remembers watching as a young man fell on top of a grenade, "taking a full body blow to himself to protect the people around him. And a 17 year old had two girls next to him; he pulled them onto the ground, and he fell on top of them and took a bullet straight to the head to protect these young little girls."
'I returned fire….'
At the time of the attack, South African political parties such as the African National Congress (ANC) and the National Party (NP) were involved in negotiations that would ultimately lead to the country's first democratic elections in 1994 and the ascension of the ANC's Nelson Mandela to the presidency.
But some groups in South Africa who had been fighting against the NP's apartheid system felt marginalized by the process, and continued what they considered to be a legitimate armed struggle against the forces of racial discrimination in the country. One of these groups was the Azanian People's Liberation Army, or APLA.
"It was APLA members that attacked our Church," says Van Wyk. "They killed 11 people and wounded and maimed about 60 others. Most of the people in the church were white, but there were also black members in our congregation."
He says his book uses this incident as a "backdrop" to his belief that law-abiding citizens have "rights and duties" to self-defense.
"That specific evening, I responded to the attackers with a little 38 Special revolver that I was carrying. I returned fire at them. And the book looks at the whole issue of should we as civilians in society be allowed to carry firearms to protect our families," Van Wyk tells VOA.
He shot one of the attackers, forcing them to flee. At the time, witnesses told the police that the attack ended when he returned fire, and that many more people would likely have been killed if it weren't for Van Wyk's actions.
South Africa in 'absolute chaos'
Van Wyk says he's sure the "anti-gun lobby" will "come down hard" on him for his views and will argue that firearms only breed more violence. But he responds that he is – quite literally – willing to stick to his guns to defend his strong beliefs.
"Guns make it easier to harm people, but they also make it easier to protect yourself and to prevent criminal acts from taking place," Van Wyk asserts.
He says his faith is also a "major part" of his convictions.
"We as Christians believe that God has given us his Word; that he's spoken to us through the Bible. And if we look at the scriptures concerning this issue there's a very clear duty upon Christian people to be able to protect those whom God has entrusted to them – their families – and the innocent people around them."
Christian who believe they're justified in protecting themselves and others from harm through force point to such Bible passages as 1 Timothy 5:8, which reads, "But if anyone does not provide for his own, and especially for those of his household, he has denied the Faith and is worse than an unbeliever."
Van Wyk explains that further inspiration for Shooting Back was provided by the "crime wave" that's swept South Africa in recent years, giving the country some of the highest murder, robbery and rape rates in the world.
"South Africa's in absolute chaos at the moment. We've seen terrible things happening in our country," he laments. "Things are totally out of control. And what's happening is that people are being encouraged to hand in their weapons to the government. We have the ministry of safety and security overseeing the disarmament of law-abiding citizens."
The South African authorities say they're trying to reduce gun crime by reducing the number of firearms in the country. But Van Wyk argues that disarming law-abiding citizens only allows criminals to have "free reign" in South Africa.
"Criminals aren't handing in their weapons, why should law-abiding citizens do this? How will they be able to defend themselves from the criminals?" he asks.
The South African government insists it's doing all it can to decrease crime and that critics such as Van Wyk are exaggerating the severity of the situation – a charge the author, pastor and pro-gun activist denies.
He does, however, declare himself in favor of "sensible" regulations that control weapon ownership and says when someone acts "irresponsibly" with a firearm, the justice system should "punish them so badly that everyone will see and hear this and then be deterred from committing gun crimes."
But Van Wyk maintains that laws mustn't be so strict as to "make it almost impossible" for responsible citizens to own firearms.
He argues that the bureaucracy involved in private citizens' acquiring a gun has made criminals more brazen because they realize that decreasing numbers of their victims have weapons with which to defend themselves.
Van Wyk comments, "In South Africa, only a small fraction of people with licensed weapons commit crimes. So we've put millions and millions of rands in resources into having a licensing system that is restricting law-abiding citizens. And at the same time our police force is so inadequately resourced that some haven't even got vehicles with which to pursue criminals. Something is seriously wrong here."
'Friends with my attackers'
Van Wyk acknowledges the danger that, in his vociferous support of citizens' rights to "fight back" against criminals in South Africa – the majority of whom are black – he'll be labeled a "disaffected, racist and right-wing" white South African.
But he's convinced that his "track record" dispels these claims against him.
"I've actually met the men who attacked our church. I'm friends with them. I meet (regularly) with them for breakfast," Van Wyk states.
About 10 years ago, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission granted amnesty to Gcinikhaya Makoma, Thobela Mlambisa and Basie Mkhumbuzi for their roles in the St. James Church Massacre. Their crimes were found to have been politically motivated, and as such a legitimate response to the apartheid system. The amnesty saved Makoma, Mlambisa and Mkhumbuzi from lengthy prison terms…. But Van Wyk says it also condemned them to the poverty of a Cape Town township.
"I run a beekeeping course for them, because they don't have work; they're unemployed," he says. "I've taken the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them. They've invited me to speak at their meetings in the black townships in South Africa."
He adds, "I fly into war zones like the Congo. And so it's pretty difficult for somebody to throw that idea that I'm a racist, because I really get on well with (black) people."
Van Wyk works as a missionary with a Christian group, Frontline Fellowship, with its objective being to "serve the persecuted churches of Africa." The organization's missionaries travel to areas of conflict, delivering sermons and bibles to refugees and other vulnerable groups.
"We work all over Africa and especially in the war zones, where a conventional missionary can't live with his family," Van Wyk explains.
Government forces and rebel militias have detained him on several occasions in various countries, but Van Wyk says he remains dedicated to his missionary work - and to speaking to all who will listen about the "positive aspects" of legitimate gun ownership.
'Sitting ducks' in gun-free zones
In his book, the missionary makes the controversial point that had the Tutsis been armed, and thus able to protect themselves from the Hutu militias that killed 800,000 people in Rwanda, the genocide there would never have happened.
"There are two reasons why we need firearms in a society," Van Wyk emphasizes. "One is to protect ourselves from criminals, and two is to protect ourselves from wicked governments, or rebel groups, or murderous sects like in northern Uganda or Rwanda. You don't find genocide taking place in countries where the citizens are armed (because) they can protect themselves against wicked people in government."
Some Christians say the law of God justifies use of force against those who would seek to do good people wrong. As a basis for this, they quote such parts of the Bible as Exodus 22:2: "If the thief is found breaking in, and he is struck so that he dies, there shall be no guilt for his bloodshed."
Van Wyk says most law-abiding citizens in one of the countries where he often works, the Democratic Republic of Congo, are "totally disarmed with no means of safeguarding themselves." In the DRC, rebel formations and government militias are currently locked in battle, forcing thousands of people to flee to refugee camps.
He acknowledges that his views have been shaped to a significant degree by the personal tragedies he's witnessed.
"A pastor friend, a colleague, of mine was buried alive (in the DRC) by rebel forces. I've met families where young children have been (forcibly) taken away to war – the boys to fight and the girls as sex slaves. This can only happen in a disarmed society," Van Wyk maintains.
He stresses, "Gun free zones are places where the law abiding citizens actually become sitting ducks. Where have we seen multiple shooting incidences around the world? We see them (mostly) in the schools in America that are gun free zones, and we see them in countries…where governments get out of control (and the citizens are unarmed)."
Van Wyk agrees that many peace activists, including many fellow Christians, will find his views and his book "unpalatable" and perhaps even "without merit."
All he asks, he says, is for people to "keep an open mind" when reading Shooting Back.
Van Wyk whispers, "I don't think God means for people to simply lie down and accept persecution, I think God expects us to fight back against our enemies. That's all I am saying."