You might not suspect it if you see me walking to work or if we make small talk in a lift, but I’m legally authorised to carry a concealed firearm. I’d rather not carry my guns with me in public, but I’m entitled to.
I don’t have a “Guns Don’t Kill People, People Kill People” sticker on my car. I don’t have an apocalypse-ready ammo stash in my cupboard. I don’t have the stuffed heads of deceased antelope on my walls.
I’m not pro-guns. I feel the same way about shooting as a surfer feels about surfing – I enjoy it but I don’t want everyone else doing it. And just as a surfboard is a tool for a much more profound experience than sliding down the gradient of a wave, a gun is just part of a broader, sustainable activity that culminates in meat in my freezer.
That said, if you break into my house and signal your intent to endanger my life, I won’t be using my surfboard to confront the threat. I’d rather not defend my life at another’s expense. But I am entitled to.
This is not to debate whether or not guns are bad. With 18 South Africans shot and killed every day according to the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System, of course guns are bad. But as much as guns are a cause of violence, they’re also loud and messy reminders of how violent we are innately – regardless of the tools we use to act on our carnal impulses. Firearms are incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands, just as booze is bad in the wrong bloodstreams and religion is bad in the wrong megaphones. This is not an argument about whether men should own guns, it’s why the men who do have such a deeply embedded and complex relationship with them.
The first time I fired a gun I was 10 years old. The gun was a .22 rifle. I lay on the ground with my elbows in the dirt and aimed at a dog food tin. With my left eye closed, I pulled the trigger and – within a sliver of a second – the hammer smashed the percussion cap at the back of the brass cartridge, instigating an explosion and sending the bullet spiralling towards the target, tearing through the tin and thudding into a mound of earth behind it. Firing a .22 is the standard first-time gun experience for most hunters and marksmen in South Africa. It’s accurate, compact and hardly gives a kick. It’s the perfect gateway gun.
I grew up on a farm where – possibly because of an ample arsenal and a lack of TV – guns were a part of everyday life. Not in a gung-ho way; we didn’t use them to open beers, for example. Guns brought meat into the freezer – mountain reedbuck from the north Eastern Cape highlands, game birds from the Cape Winelands, springbok from the plains of the Karoo and bushbuck from the valleys of Heidelberg. Guns kept the farm in check – I’ve used them to dispatch snakes that have slithered too close to the house and to defend chickens’ eggs from aerial attacks by crows.
So what makes a city-dwelling, tax-paying guy like me want to own and use guns if he’s not plotting a coup or hunting game in the streets (although hadedas test my resolve every Saturday morning)? Perhaps part of it comes with being a male in South Africa, a country with a profoundly entrenched gun culture and one of the highest rates of firearm-related deaths in the world (behind Colombia and Venezuela, according to UN research).
Of the two South African news stories to steal international headlines in the space of six months – the Marikana massacre and the shooting of Reeva Steenkamp – both were hinged on men’s decision to pull the trigger. The international press became fascinated with South Africa’s fixation with firearms. Following the Steenkamp shooting, the UK newspaper The Guardian described South Africa as a land with “guns in the bedroom, guns in glove compartment and guns on the brain”.
Last year Dr Angela Stroud, a sociologist at the University of Texas, put the question to men like me, legal owners of firearms: why do you own guns? The three most prominent answers were: (1) to protect their wives and children from violent crime; (2) to compensate for lost strength as they age; and (3) to make them secure in places they feel vulnerable.
Aside from these practical reasons, Stroud says the emotional connection between men and guns is often left out of the debate. “One thing that stuck out in my interviews was how deeply meaningful guns can become for boys who have these experiences with their fathers.”
This was true during my formative years of neutralising many a blitzkrieg from regiments of dog food cans. As I grew up, the firepower of the weapons became stronger and the targets moved further away and some became mobile. I learned to control my breathing, to steady my hands and to squeeze the trigger instead of jerking it. I learned to concentrate on the sights, and not the impending bang in my ears or kick in my shoulder.
I can understand the emotional bond between man and machine that Stroud talks about. When I was old enough, I inherited my great-grandfather’s double-barrelled Westley Richards 12-bore shotgun, handcrafted by a gunsmith in Birmingham, England. It’s over a century old, with a walnut stock and etched with ornate, symmetrical engravings. It was given away by my great-grandmother to a neighbouring farmer whose son returned it to the family 74 years later. It’s steel and wood in the same way that a vintage Triumph Bonneville motorcycle is just iron and leather. Most modern possessions are captive to planned obsolescence – almost everything I own can be updated and downgraded, but this shotgun escapes those life cycles. For a few decades’ worth of hunting seasons, I’ll get to safeguard something that has crossed continents, outlived wars and survived economic collapses until I pass it onto its next owner.
“I think a lot of anti-gun people don’t really understand gun culture and what it means to grow up in a place where young boys have guns and hunting as part of a family experience,” says Stroud. “They have positive associations with using guns and with being out shooting.”
But for every positive association, there is a volley of negative ones. Such as the fact that too many South African males’ fates lie in trigger-fingers; according to the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System, 89% of South Africans murdered with firearms are men.
The first time I felt the desire to shoot someone was when I heard how two thieves broke into a family member’s house and stabbed him while he defended his sister. This response is evidenced in Stroud’s research findings – the desire for firearms to protect those close to you. My initial reaction was: I’d have shot both of them if I were there. But it’s easy to say that when you weren’t there, and that is too often where The Gun Debate slides to, from both sides: the hypothetical “Imagine if” scenario. Imagine if your family’s life was at risk. Imagine if there was a world without guns. Imagine if you had a gun but didn’t need to use it. Imagine if you needed a gun but didn’t have it. Imagine if your gun got stolen. Arguing the need for or against firearms in society is fuelled by an explosive combination of emotion and theory, with too many “Imagine If” scenarios. And while practical procedures have been put in place, it’s debatable whether South Africa’s relatively strict gun legislation process affects the anonymous and untraceable arsenals of unlicensed weapons on the streets.
The number of registered gun owners in South Africa is small. “Civilian gun owners make up just 3.6% of SA’s 51.8 million population,” says Claire Taylor, co-ordinator at Gun Free South Africa. A report in the South African Medical Journal revealed a community-based study that showed that it was more common for men to own an unlicensed gun than a licensed one, while Gun Policy News – an evidence-based international bulletin hosted by the University of Sydney – estimates that there may be up to four million unlicensed guns in South Africa.
Buying a gun in South Africa can be a sluggish process involving competency tests, testimonials and safety exams. But it can be startlingly quick too; in March, SABC News exposed a firearms training centre in Pretoria that bypasses the procedure for a sum of R1 100. “While the Firearms Control Act is a very comprehensive piece of legislation, it’s only as good as its implementation,” says Taylor. “And there’s enough evidence that the law isn’t being implemented properly.”
The first time I used a gun on a person I used a fake gun. My brother and I had caught a thief and with the persuasion of a pellet gun that – to the undiscerning eye – looks like a .22 rifle, we carried out a citizen’s arrest. Had the thief escaped, the only wrath he would have felt would have been compressed air. On this occasion, the reason for bearing not-quite arms wasn’t to defend us or to attack the criminal; the reason was that it’s a well-known fact that guns usually have the final say. This need to stand on the safe end of a weapon is another one of Stroud’s research findings – man’s desire to “feel more secure in places they feel vulnerable”.
Firearms are mankind’s great leveller; it’s rock to scissors. And while guns don’t fix problems, they often subdue them for a while (provided the target doesn’t have one). The swift processes of colonisation showed how aeons of sophisticated war strategy and weaponry crumbled to small amounts of cold, hard steel.
One of the appeals of firing a gun is the effect it has on physics’ notion of transferring energy – tremendous, consequential torrents of energy can be the result of a slight bit of effort. Like twisting a grip on a motorbike’s throttle or shoving a foot on an accelerator pedal, squeezing a trigger unleashes remarkable power – not only in terms of kilojoules but socially too. Firearms carry the potential energy to change governments, widow wives, stop moving vehicles, orphan children, protect lives, reverse micro-economies, defend property and change a no to a yes.
It’s a power that men literally get a buzz from. “The mere act of handling and firing a gun is biologically rewarded. We get a testosterone rush,” says Dr Frank McAndrew, a psychology professor who researches human social behaviour at Knox College in the US. McAndrew explains that using a gun gives the same kick you get when you win a tennis match or outperform colleagues at work.
To verify this, McAndrew and his colleagues checked the testosterone levels of 30 male university students before and after the students played with either a gun or a children’s game for 15 minutes. The men who’d played with the gun had significantly higher readings. And that, McAndrew says, boils down to one conclusion: “Shooting guns is fun.”
It really is, for some of us. From the sticks we used in cops and robbers to the paintball dispensers at bachelor parties, guns have been unmistakably alluring for many men. Guns alter our excitement levels and they’ve coloured our vocabulary; we jump them, stick to them and come out with them ablazing.
Perhaps pursuing a chemical spike through shattering clay pigeons or sending screaming bullets through paper targets is a way of regaining some ideal of manhood in the increasingly emasculated world that the average micro-managed, microwave-meal-eating man lives in. Professor Kopano Ratele, president of the Psychological Society of South Africa and contributor to the African Regional Sexuality Resource Centre, says that guns are a common substitute or extension of the body for physical hardiness. This confirms Stroud’s notion that some men use guns to compensate for lost physical strength.
However, when men do things to prove their manhood, they often aren’t done subtly. Despite the regulatory effects of safety laws, competency tests and hunting seasons, there is – like any subculture – a lunatic fringe in the shooting community. And like any lunatic fringe, they’re usually the noisy ones – especially in this case where their prime interest is centred on explosions. These people are the reason why I – without being anti-guns – am anti-most-other-people-having-guns. The responsibility of owning a gun is deathly severe, and it carries far more consequences than certain gung ho attitudes at shooting ranges or trigger-happy tendencies on hunting trips would let on.
This is because irresponsible gun-ownership doesn’t only depend on how guns are handled, but also how they’re guarded. The pool of unlicensed guns in South Africa results from three diversions, says Taylor. They’re smuggled into the country, diverted from the state (the police and the army) or stolen from civilians. “Ten times as many guns are stolen from or lost by civilians than from state reps.”
Martin Hood, spokesperson for the South African Gunowners’ Association, says you can’t be granted a gun licence without owning the correct facilities to store it. “You must have a safe installed and ready for inspection by the SAPS before you apply for your firearm licence.” The legislation insists that all gun owners need to store firearms in SABS-approved safes that are fixed into walls with specific-sized bolts at designated distances apart, he says.
Yet despite the sensational headlines that cling to street-side lamp posts, statistics show that – in terms of firearm violence – South Africa is steadily getting safer. Figures from the National Crime Prevention Centre in Pretoria show that the number of people shot and killed has halved within a decade. And the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System’s most recent statistics report a decline in firearm murders, notably in Johannesburg from 69% to 48% within six years.
The first time a gun brought me real joy was
while hunting Egyptian geese with my father in the vineyards of the Cape. It was one of those winter evenings where the crisp air makes everything seem clearer and the mountains were cast in a purple hue from the dying daylight. We’d had no success and as we were walking home, a lone bird flew over us and ascended high into the twilight sky. It had long flown past the range of a shotgun (around 50m) and continued to climb further. My father lowered his gun. Being far too optimistic about my gun’s abilities – and being out of earshot of my father’s advice – I squeezed the trigger at the impossibly distant target that was now twice as far as it should be. When you fire a shotgun, the pellets are dispersed into the air and eventually peter out. But somehow, out of pure improbability, a few persistent small lead pellets made it to the distant, soaring target. Long after the bang echoed across the valley, the bird tumbled out of the sky – long dead before it eventually hit the earth.
I could pepper the sky with a thousand shotgun cartridges and I’d never get it right again. It’s a story that occasionally reappears around the fireside, the traditional place for reciting hunting tales since the Paleolithic era. The essence of the story has never been about killing the bird (which, incidentally, was cooked and was delicious). It was about two men witnessing one of life’s rare and sublime moments of almost-impossible coincidence colliding with fantastic dumb luck.
We’ve been raised to believe that the father-and- son dynamic is like the ones we see on sitcoms. It isn’t; it’s a critical, fluctuating, misinformed and wildly complex relationship. If you’re lucky, you’ll get a handful of moments of spontaneous, childish glee to share with your father in your lifetime. This sheer fluke – the kind that almost always happens when there are no witnesses – over a few seconds of an August evening was one of them. And the instrument in orchestrating the moment just happened to be my great-grandfather’s shotgun.
– Ian McNaught Davis