The recent tragic news from Pretoria, South Africa, that Oscar Pistorius, the Paralympic gold medal-winning “Blade Runner,” is being charged with the murder of his girlfriend has received full international coverage in the media. The alleged weapon, a nine-millimeter semi-automatic pistol, just another acquired for the self-defense of the fearful occupants, raises important questions of self-defense and civilian gun ownership the world over.
The original story, about which South African police are now expressing “skepticism,” was that on Valentine’s eve Pistorious mistook his girlfriend for a burglar when she attempted a romantic surprise. The new emerging version is that this latest incident was merely the culmination of a number of “domestic incidents.” Regardless of what happened, the balance of risk and safety associated with self-defense firearms kept in the home is once more in the spotlight.
South African commentators have drawn attention to the role fear of crime plays in encouraging the acquisition of self-defense firearms by private citizens. This fear also drives the construction of high-security residential complexes surrounded by electrified fences and patrolled by private armed response companies in which only the most affluent whites can afford to live. As a living legacy of apartheid, South Africa has one of the world’s highest rates of firearm-related violence, with around fifty people a day killed by gunfire. This violence, in turn, prompts high rates of gun ownership. There are thought to be around six million legally owned firearms in South Africa, with around thirteen percent of the population owning a gun. The thriving illegal firearm economy makes the actual number much higher.
Despite the UN’s attempts to restrict firearm proliferation, civilian acquisition of self-defense firearms has become a truly global phenomenon. The issue of civilian gun ownership is surfacing in Latin America (particularly Brazil), Europe, Australia, and Asia. In India, the middle class is reputedly purchasing firearms for self-defense in the face of a growing perception of rising crime, which is not always accurate and partially driven by gun industry marketing, and a sense that police cannot be relied upon to guarantee protection. Interest in self-defense firearms has particularly risen among Indian women since December’s well-publicized gang rape and murder: since then, 274 New Delhi women have applied for gun licenses, and 1,200 more have inquired how to obtain one.
The issue persists even in the United Kingdom, which, since the Dunblane School shooting in 1996, has had some of the strictest gun laws in the world including a civilian ban on handgun ownership. In Northern Ireland, as a legacy of “the Troubles,” several thousand private citizens retain an entitlement to personal protection firearms (perhaps a case of exceptional circumstances, exceptional measures). British shooting industry magazines often feature stories of firearms facilitating self-defense or “crime prevention.” Only last year, Britain’s justice minister spoke of the need for greater tolerance of householders who shoot burglars, while a spokesman for the elite British Association for Shooting and Conservation remarked upon a supposed “backlash” in British attitudes toward the possession of self-defense firearms. “Sadly,” he commented, “you can only own one now for sports or work.”
Although the issue of self-defense firearms has global ramifications, the U.S. is its center of gravity. The killing of Trayvon Martin in February 2012 and the Sandy Hook shooting in December 2012 have re-energized the debate on the safety of firearms in the home, as well as on “Castle Doctrine” or “Stand your Ground” laws that prioritize individual self-defense over public safety. Some would see this simply as a numbers game, balancing the lives saved through defensive gun possession with those lost, whereas others point to the risks associated with keeping guns in the home (for example, inquisitive children finding loaded guns).
Despite the historical credentials of U.S. “gun culture,” the broader dilemmas of urban civilian defensive gun ownership are a product of late twentieth century neoliberal culture. This culture discredits governments, distrusts collectivist solutions, and emboldens ideologies of self-reliant individualism. Personal firepower has, like the sorcerer’s apprentice making off with his master’s wand, come to represent a troubling augmentation of individual capacity in a dangerous world. As the case of Pistorius highlights, we should be careful what we wish for and especially what we keep at home. The right to bear arms—or keep them at home—entails and facilitates more firearm-related violence. Creating a society of armed co-existence is a dangerous and ill-advised road to public safety, effectively prioritizing the right to kill over tackling the circumstances producing higher rates of risk and insecurity.