How the Pistorius trial presents a skewed view of South African gun culture

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Oscar Pistorius loved guns. This much we know.

Friends called as witnesses in the double-amputee sprinter’s trial have told of his passion for firearms — his gun collection, his trips to the shooting range. An ex-girlfriend recalled his ever-present 9mm pistol, at night placed on the bedside table or next to his prosthetic legs on the floor. She also recalled the Olympian shooting from the open sunroof of a car in 2012.

Pistorius is charged with having used a 9mm pistol to kill his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in the early morning of February 14, 2013, weeks after he allegedly accidentally discharged the weapon in a popular Johannesburg restaurant. For viewers following this televised trial from abroad, the impression might be that South Africa is a gun-toting country with a right-to-bear-arms culture similar to that of the United States.

But in fact there is comparatively little gun ownership here — an average of 12.7 guns per 100 people. That’s a fraction of the 88.8 guns per 100 people in the United States, according to data from the Small Arms Survey.

The astonishing figure is the number of gun murders: South Africa has a homicide by firearm rate of 17.03 per 100,000 people, much higher than the US rate of 2.97. While gun ownership is much lower than the US, crime in general is extraordinarily high in South Africa, a country blighted by inequality.

South Africa remains one of the world’s most violent countries with an average of 45 murders a day — or 31.3 per 100,000 people per year, though declining. In comparison, the United States has a homicide rate of 4.8 per 100,000 people.

A key challenge for the police is dealing with lost and stolen weapons, the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies said in a recent report. Guns are often targeted for theft by home invaders and other criminals. Fewer than half of those reported missing are recovered, and a large number end up being used in crimes.

The advocacy group Gun Free South Africa points out that gun-related deaths have actually decreased by nearly half between 1999 and 2009, largely due to the strict gun ownership laws that came into effect in 2000. Gun-related crime overall has dropped by 21.2 percent in the last decade.

Under the post-apartheid Firearms Control Act, gun owners were required to reapply for licenses they had held prior to the legislation’s passing, and background checks and testing have since become more stringent. Permission to carry a gun for self defense isn’t a given — you have to first demonstrate a need for the weapon.

According to Gun Free South Africa, gun owners are four times more likely to have a firearm used against them than they are to use one successfully in self-defense. The story of Pistorius and his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp is “not unique.”

“A man legally buys a gun to protect himself and those he loves from a stranger intruder; instead he uses his licensed gun to kill the person he loves,” a statement from the group said. “Women are most at risk for being shot and killed in their homes by someone they know with a legal gun.”

“People get angry, people get in fights, but if you have a gun, it can be lethal,” the group’s spokesperson, Adele Kirsten, told GlobalPost last year.

In court last week, gun trainer Sean Rens testified that Pistorius knew the country’s firearms law, and as part of the licensing process had filled out a questionnaire about when it is legal to shoot at an intruder.

Responding to the final question on the test, on the importance of properly identifying the target, Pistorius wrote: "Always know your target and what lies behind."

The irony was obvious in the courtroom: Pistorius’s defense against the murder charges is that he fired his weapon into the bathroom door thinking he was hitting an intruder on the other side, rather than Steenkamp.

In January of 2013, Pistorius applied for six more firearm licenses through Rens, which he was hoping to procure under a special license for gun collectors. He wanted to buy three shotguns, two revolvers — including a Smith & Wesson 500 — and a Vector .223 rifle.

This order was cancelled, Rens told the court, a month after Pistorius shot and killed Steenkamp.