A proposed law aims to prevent South Africans from obtaining firearm licenses for self-defense. While gun critics say limiting access to guns has proven successful in reducing deaths, some proponents argue that taking guns out of some hands — specifically, women’s hands — will deepen what the president has called a “second pandemic,” of gender-based violence.
South Africa’s rate of intimate femicide — the killing of women by their partners — is five times the global average, according to the World Health Organization.
And the big driver of that, they argue, is the nation’s high rate of gun ownership. That’s the argument from South African legislators pushing this bill, that fewer guns in public hands has statistically led to fewer gun deaths.
Gun owners and advocates disagree, and say it matters who is holding the gun. One particularly vocal group consists of women, who say the constant threat of violence calls for self-defense. The nation’s unacceptably high rate of sexual violence once led Interpol to name the country the “rape capital of the world.” President Cyril Ramaphosa recently described gender-based violence as the nation’s “second epidemic.”
This 33-year-old woman asked us to conceal her identity out of fear for her safety. That’s because in the space of three months, she said, she was raped multiple times, first by a gun-toting home intruder who broke into her house repeatedly and threatened to kill her sleeping brother, and then by the friend she confided in. She says both men had guns and used them to terrorize her.
Now, she wants one, too, and is seeking a license for self-defense.
“Because I’ll have it with me, I feel like I'll be empowered. And should anything that is life-threatening happen — and obviously, I'll try and get out of the situation — but if I can't, then I'll do what I can to save my life," she said. "It basically could be the dividing line between life and death. And I've been in those, and I feel like I need to take charge and take a stand. I have been failed so many times, and I think it's time to stop blaming other people and think what could what could I do differently to keep myself safe and to keep my life safe. So, I feel like it would help empower me to know that I don't have to give in. If I can't get out of it, then there's a way to disable them from doing what they're trying to do to me or anybody around me at that time.”
Her pain was compounded, she said, when her parents blamed her for the assaults. She said she has spent years in therapy and has no desire for revenge.
Lynette Oxley is a licensed firearms dealer in Johannesburg who works with women seeking gun licenses. She’s also an accomplished sport shooter. In 2015, she founded Girls on Fire, a group that represents women who own guns for sport and self-defense.
She says she trains women to think of guns as a deterrent.
“If you talk to all of the lady firearm owners that I've spoken to through the years, they say it actually makes you less aggressive, because you're aware that if you do take that step, it's a big step," said Oxley. "It's not something that you actually want to do. So actually, it calms you down. It makes you actually think about scenarios. And the big thing is, get out of this scenario if you can. But ... if you are attacked, then obviously that is the best way of defending yourself against a bigger stronger perpetrator.”
But, says researcher Nechama Brodie, who studies gender-based violence, the very valid fears women have can’t necessarily be solved with more guns. She pointed to the last time South Africa’s government tried to restrict gun access in the early 2000s. Studies showed that gun deaths from femicide dropped significantly.
“I really do understand, as a woman living in South Africa, how vulnerable you feel," Brodie said. "And how we imagine, because we're told by Hollywood, as well as by gun owner lobbies, that having a firearm on your person is the one thing that's going to make you safe. But the data shows us that firearms make all of us anything but safe, and the most important step that we could take to improve women's safety in South Africa would be to disarm more men, not to arm more women.”
Brodie argues that if the goal is to protect women, there are other, less dangerous interventions, like better street lighting, more community safety initiatives and burglar bars on homes.
All of these women agree on the actual problem here: South African girls and women feel unsafe — on the streets and in their homes — every day.
But are guns the answer? That’s the question facing Parliament in coming months.