Last week Solomon Mhlongo was sentenced to an effective 23 years in prison for the murder of his common-law wife Elizabeth and five-year old daughter Tlaleng. Two years earlier he emptied a magazine of bullets into Elizabeth and Tlaleng, stopped to reload and then continued firing until the gun jammed. Elizabeth was left sprawled at the side of the bed, her chest, head, thigh and hand peppered with bullets, while her daughter lay slumped sideways in a blood-spattered chair. Only a week before Mhlongo was sentenced, a similar drama was played out in Port Elizabeth when SAPS Inspector Jeffery Sampson shot and killed his wife, mistress, four-year old son and three-year old daughter before turning the gun on himself.
Guns are a major threat to the health and lives of women and men.
The gun lobby has largely placed the blame for these injuries on illegal weapons. They propose eradicating the illegal gun trade while permitting responsible citizens to arm themselves for purposes of self-defence. Gun-related violence is perpetrated by those in possession of stolen weapons and we support all attempts to clamp down on the illegal firearms trade. But to allow more 'responsible' citizens to own guns is sheer folly and conveniently ignores the gun-related violence committed by registered, 'law-abiding' gun owners – much of it within the context of familial and sexual relationships. Both Sampson and Mhlongo, for instance, were registered gun owners.
The extent of this violence cannot be under-estimated. Research covering the period 1993/1994 found that at least one woman in Gauteng was killed every six days by her male partner. The study also suggested that women were at greater risk of being killed by their partners and other men known to them than they were likely to be killed by strangers. Strict gun control measures must be put in place, in conjunction with other preventative measures, to reduce these fatalities. Guns require a particular focus for a couple of reasons: they cause the majority of deaths in family killings; are also more effectively lethal and cause more serious injuries than other weapons do.
The Firearms Control Bill provides us with an opportunity to protect family members from gun violence. By making important changes to the current draft, we can ensure that those owning licensed guns are responsible, non-violent persons likely to use their guns for self-defence alone – not the annihilation of their families. While it is proposed that gun licences be renewed, renewals should be more rather than less frequent. Because violence in abusive relationships can escalate quite rapidly, renewals should take place regularly, allowing for a quicker response to the emergence and escalation of domestic violence.
A further loophole in the Bill is the fact that it exempts existing gun owners from requiring competency certificates. Here the Bill is relying exclusively on provisions within the Domestic Violence Act which permit the courts to declare a person unfit to possess a firearm if a final protection order in terms of the Act has been issued. But what of those individuals who have been convicted in terms of other pieces of legislation of offences involving domestic violence? They are left both armed and undetected.
Guns are responsible for a large number of family killings. They must not be made readily available.
Lisa Vetten is the former Manager of the Gender Programme at the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
Originally published in The Sunday Independent, 4 June 2000.