Oscar Pistorius and the question of firearm ownership.

In the early morning hours of February 14th 2013 world famous paralympian Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, four times through the door separating the toilet from the rest of the bathroom in his Pretoria residence. All four of the shots fired from the Taurus 9mm Parabellum struck Ms. Steenkamp, one fatally wounding her in the head. The prosecution headed by Senior Advocate Gerrie Nel, who successfully prosecuted former South African Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi on corruption charges, accuses Pistorius of premeditated murder. The defence counsel headed by the formidable Senior Advocate Barry Roux argues that it was a tragic accident.

According to Oscar Pistorius’ affidavit, when he got up during the early hours that morning to close the sliding doors between his bedroom and the balcony, he heard a noise from the bathroom and realised that someone was in there. He was overcome with terror and grabbed his pistol from under the bed and proceeded to the bathroom on his stumps. He did not switch the lights on because he was too scared to do so. He claims to have shouted at the possible intruder to get out of his house, and at Reeva to phone the police for he believed her to be in the bed. He further claims to have felt terrified and trapped due to the lack of mobility by being on his stumps, and that he then fired four shots through the bathroom door. He claims to have kept shouting at Reeva to phone the police as he moved back to the bedroom, but she did not respond. Upon reaching the bed he noticed that Reeva was missing, and it then dawned upon him that it could have been her in the toilet.

The ensuing trial has generated a firestorm of sensational reporting in both the South African and international media. A wide range of themes are touched upon ranging from gun rights and ownership, to abuse against women, to the high endemic levels of violent crime plaguing South Africa, to bizarrely even racism. Violent crime in South Africa is something that all citizens are highly conscious of, and it affects almost every aspect of our daily lives. The annual publication of the national crime statistics draws great interest. With over 160,000 people murdered in South Africa since 2004, and 31.9 homicides per 1000 people in the 2010/11 year is it any wonder that so much fear surrounds the topic of crime? It is this aspect of South African life that Pistorius’ defence team hopes to use to their advantage.

The case itself has provided controversy and sensation on an almost daily basis as the trial progresses: Oscar and Reeva did not have a particularly happy relationship, or so it seems from their instant messaging records read out in court. Mr. Pistorius also stands accused of two previous firearm related offences, one involving discharging a handgun through the sunroof of his car and the discharging of a handgun in a crowded Melrose Arch restaurant, Tashas. He also settled an alleged assault case out of court shortly before the start of his trial, and he is reportedly known to be quick to use threats of violence. These incidents do not paint a favourable picture of Pistorius’ character, and it suggests that there is more to the case than mere mistaken identity.

Pistorius is a member of a firearms collector’s organisation and regularly shot his guns at the range. It stands to reason that he is competent and familiar with the safe and responsible operation of firearms, and that he would be well versed in the basic rules of firearm safety. To put South African law into perspective, Burchell defines private defence as follows: “A person who is the victim of an unlawful attack upon person, property or other recognized legal interest may resort to force to repel such an attack. Any harm…inflicted upon an aggressor in the course of such private defence is not unlawful.” As a matter of interest South African law does not differentiate between an armed and unarmed attacker, thus there is no onus on the defender to use equal force upon their assailant. According to S Goosen for a situation of private defence to arise evidence must show a) an attack, b) upon a legally protected interest, and c) that the attack was unlawful. Fear alone is not sufficient to justify defence, and private defence may only be utilised when an attack has already commenced or is imminent. Why then did Pistorius shoot through a barrier at an unidentified target in his bathroom that morning? A target that at that stage posed no threat to his person what so ever? Considering that it is a prerequisite for the issuing of a firearm licence to prove competence with regards to South African law pertaining the use of deadly force in self-defence, Pistorius would obviously have been sufficiently familiar with the law to pass his competency exams and therefore not be ignorant of the fact that his claimed actions were unlawful. Despite this Pistorius pleaded not-guilty to all charges levelled against him.

Whatever the truth regarding the circumstances of that fateful Valentine’s Day morning turns out to be, the sad reality is that Oscar Pistorius’ actions paints South African gun owners in a bad light. When a person causes death or injury through reckless or negligent driving, we do not penalise and blame all motorists for the actions of an irresponsible driver: instead we expect the guilty party to take responsibility for and to face the consequences of their actions. Pistorius has a record of not taking responsibility, such as his claim that the Glock in the Tashas incident went off on its own accord. As it stands Pistorius still has not accepted responsibility for the far-reaching and much graver charge he is on trial for. Wouldn’t it be logical for Pistorius’ negligence, if it is not in fact murder, to be scrutinised and condemned rather than gun ownership?

Unfortunately this is not the case, and the firearms community is faced with an illogical and emotional attack upon its integrity and communal responsibility, all due to the actions of a negligent individual. Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) have used the trial to attempt to influence public sentiment against civilian ownership of firearms. One of their core anti-gun arguments is that a gun owner is four times as likely to be killed with his own gun, than he is to successfully use it in self-defence. This statistic was recently disproven by a proactive gun owner who contacted the original researcher commissioned by GFSA, and they have been grasping at straws ever since to support their statements in view of their lack of statistical evidence. In light of GFSA’s propaganda and certain inaccuracies propagated by the media, Gun Owners of South Africa (GOSA) have spearheaded an effort to educate and inform a seemingly ignorant media and public with regards to firearm ownership. The Pistorius trial has served to energise a previously inactive population of gun owners to become proactive in promoting and defending their rights, and it has contributed to the international debate regarding civilian gun ownership. If Reeva Steenkamp’s tragic death is to have at least one positive consequence, I hope that it will be a stronger and more unified body of responsible South African gun owners fighting for and protecting our rights.

Photo Credit: Shaun Wessels

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