Guns ain't roses after all

Guns ain't roses after all

Andie Miller talks to Dex Goodman, who had a change of heart about carrying a gun after he was paralysed as a result of a gunshot wound

By Andie Miller

In early 1994 a young theology student at Rhodes University, Alan Storey, was watching a news report on a voluntary gun hand-in somewhere in the United States. It occurred to him – as we were approaching South Africa's first democratic election – that such a programme might be possible in South Africa, and he took the idea to his father, Peter Storey, who was then a bishop in the Methodist Church of Southern Africa.

This culminated in the 24-hour national firearms amnesty of December 16 1994, South Africa's first "Day of Reconciliation". And later, in the formation of Gun Free South Africa.

Many of the organisation's founding members were religious leaders, for whom "peacemaking is not an optional commitment. It is a requirement of our faith." But the support base soon spread, when members of civil society began to envisage the benefits of stricter legislation and fewer guns on the streets and the Gun Control Alliance was formed.

There is a popular misconception that it's illegal weapons that are responsible for the violence in our society. But research and experience have shown that many legally owned guns are used in suicides, accidental shootings, family murders and, as one grassroots community put it in a statement: "Gun carriers are often targeted for disarmament by thugs."

Arming ourselves does not make us safer. Someone who can attest to this is Dex Goodman, who had a change of heart about the wisdom of carrying a gun.

"It was a Sunday afternoon," he tells me. "I'd been down to the municipal dump once already that day and, as municipal dumps go, there are always loads of scavengers around, basically trying to earn a living. They asked me for money, which is pretty normal, and I said don't worry I'm coming back. So I left and went back for another load of stuff, branches that I'd cut down. And when I came back with my stepson, it wasn't more than 20 minutes later, the place was dead quiet. It was about 5 o'clock so I thought, okay, obviously they've knocked off and gone home."

The way he says "knocked off" suggests he recognises scavenging as an occupation, just as many South Africans also believe that crime is a job.

"So, basically, I was at the back of my trailer," he continues, "busy loosening the tailgate, and I heard a very soft-spoken voice saying: 'Look at me, baas. I'm going to shoot you.' At the time the images that went through my head were of a kid who'd found a toy gun in the rubbish, and I wasn't particularly fazed. And eventually – I'm not sure of the time frame, it could have been seconds – I thought I'd better look. When I looked up there was a guy standing on the right-hand side of the trailer pointing a .38 Special at me."

Dex is obviously a man who knows guns. "So I looked at it, just trying to see if it was real and it was loaded. It was a rusty old gun. I thought the chances are it's actually been lying in the water and may well misfire anyway. And I'd just managed to ascertain all that, when another guy came and grabbed me from behind."

Seeming to feel that full disclosure was necessary at this point, he adds: "Okay, the reason they attacked me is because I was carrying a firearm myself, which they probably noticed." His use of the word firearm sounds academic, and has a distancing effect. It seems less lethal than a gun.

"The municipal dump in Walkerville is about a kilometre and a half off the main road, so it's really out in the bush. And I thought the only thing for me to do here is to struggle. Even though I was carrying a firearm the last thing that crossed my mind was actually to use it. They were young kids, about 17, maybe even a little bit younger. I thought, you know, I'll give you guys a bloody good hiding and send you home. And as I managed to free myself from the guy who was holding me the other one shot me.

"From their perspective I can understand," he says, "I'm a big guy and I've got a firearm. I'm pretty sure he shot me out of fear, because the guy who was holding the gun, he wasn't cocky; he was pretty shook up himself. And basically as I hit the ground, another two guys appeared, and they went straight for my firearm."

This was in December 17 2000, when Dex's life changed completely. He was shot just below his shoulder blade and the bullet went through a lung and into his spine. He is now paralysed from the waist down.

"My oldest stepson, Nick, was with me at the time. At that point he was 14. The attackers had just pulled the firearm off me when Nick got out of the car. As he opened the door, they pulled him out of the car, and one of the guys got in from the passenger side looking around for whatever he could find.

"He tried to get the ignition keys out, but he couldn't do it – with the Corolla you've got to push the key in and turn it to get it out. So they ran off saying they're coming back for the car. Then I sent my son up to the main road to go and get help.

"He was probably about 200m away when two little kids came along. My first thought was now they're coming to rob me as well, but they said they wanted to help. So I got one of them to go and have a look to see if the ignition key was still in the car. It was. Then I got them to try and help me to the car, but they were small kids, they couldn't lift me. So I eventually managed to drag myself to the car, and up on to the back seat.

"The two kids got in the car, and then I coached the one little kid to drive … Ag, and he was great," he recalls. "Stalled the car about four or five times, and then off we went … He'd never driven before. By the time we got up to the main road Nick had flagged someone down.

"So now the other driver sees the car coming up the road, two young black guys driving, so he's now standing with a 9mm on top of his roof, ready to start shooting. I managed to get the window open, waving and shouting don't shoot! Then 20 minutes later, ambulance and police, the boys and my wife, they came down."

At this point he was not yet in pain. "Adrenalin is the most amazing thing," he marvels. But about an hour later the pain began in earnest. "Ja," he reflects, "that was the start of another journey.

"Up until that point I'd been carrying a firearm for eight years, living in a really dark headspace, in a bad marriage, under financial stress, working long hours, and all of a sudden that changed. I'd been carrying the firearm for that sort of eventuality, and it all unfolded. Before that nothing would have made me give it up.

"But when I was shot I realised that you can't run and you can't hide. If there's something in your path, it's in your path, and you're not going to change that. And that in itself was such a release, just learning to accept things.

"That's the point where you're really pushing your beliefs, because you think, well, I believe all of these things and maybe in that situation I'll start praying, and it was nothing like that at all. Everything was peaceful, and the things I believed in were more true for me then than any other time of my life, because they were real. Being able to come to terms with myself … that's probably one of the greatest gifts one could ever get.."

Remarkably, Dex seems to be without anger towards his attackers. I wonder if his compassion is because he has three sons – 15, 18 and 21 – himself. Did part of him see them simply as someone else's children?

"Ag, what's there to be angry about?" he asks. "It wasn't personal. They wanted my firearm, and ultimately we did a dance together. We exchanged energy, and we moved along in our respective journeys, in our own directions. From there my life took a positive turn, and I can only think that their lives went down a negative road. The guy who shot me, I'm pretty sure he'd never shot anyone before, so that was a step in a new direction for him too."

Dex's experience is consistent with Gun Free South Africa's research, which found that "victims in possession of a firearm were nearly four times more likely to have their firearms stolen than to use them in self-defence" and "firearms were robbed from victims in 78 percent of the cases in which victims were known to have a gun".

Even if you do manage to use your weapon in self-defence, the research found, this increases "the likelihood that the perpetrator would fire his firearm between three- and fourfold".

Though he seems exceptionally fatalistic, Dex reminds me that he has choices. "You have to decide how you're going to deal with a situation. There's negative in every situation and there's positive in every situation," he says, rolling another cigarette.

A cynic might argue that he is simply in denial, that his fatalism is unrealistic, that some part of him must be enraged, and yet it is the directness of his gaze that strikes me and makes me believe he is telling the truth. Sometimes it is so intense it unnerves me, and I have to break eye contact and look away.

In 2006, Dex moved to Cape Town to be near his sons. He no longer owns a gun. These days he can be seen with a saxophone. No longer a slave to a high-budget lifestyle and the IT industry, he's spending most of his time doing what he really loves – playing the sax and compiling the WhatsOnSA website..

"At least four nights a week I'm at music venues, and the majority of them are upstairs. I'll get the closest person who's there to assist me."

A gun-free society is the ideal for Adèle Kirsten, author of A Nation Without Guns?: The Story of Gun Free South Africa, but she has been happy to play a part in bringing about stricter gun control, through GFSA's input into the Firearms Control Act of 2000.

"I agree with the school of thought that says it's not guns that shoot, it's people," she says, "but that's precisely why you have to control the weapons, because people are unpredictable and volatile, and I'm clear that if you control them and make them less available our homicide rates will drop."

As director of GFSA from 1995 to 2002 and recently appointed as the director of the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, addressing the violence in our society remains her priority.

"What we need is to create new social norms," she says. "Everyone talks about the culture of violence in South Africa, and when we say that we talk about the perpetrators, but the fact that we reach for our gun means we are violent."

It seems inevitable that our conversation should turn to Jacob Zuma and his Um'shini wam' (Bring me my machine gun) theme song.

"The interesting thing about Zuma," says Kirsten, "is that he was a big proponent of the Firearms Control Act, and he does support gun control. He played a key role for us, at Gun Free SA, in the ANC caucus, and one of the reasons was his experience in KwaZulu-Natal. He said handguns are a huge factor in the violence in KZN, and he thinks young men mustn't be having guns.

"But people don't understand what a culture of violence means and how we entrench it, so for most South Africans, when you talk about the hangover of militarisation in our society from the apartheid era, people can't see it because it's insidious, in the way we behave with each other, the way our organisations and our government are structured. It's not visible, but it's present, and I don't think he makes the connection.

"For the majority of South Africans the AK-47 is a symbol of struggle. And I think for Zuma the message is that we're waging another struggle. So I think invoking that image is intentional.

"He's invoking something which he knows will have resonance. Unfortunately young men are getting the message that getting what you want through firepower is acceptable."

My thoughts return to Dex, and I imagine suddenly finding myself unable to walk, and that it would feel like my life was over. But no, he assured me: "The first thing I did when I got back from the hospital was go and blow my saxophone. I was shot in the lung, and I was terrified I wouldn't be able to play anymore.

"Then my life would have been over."

Published on the web by Sunday Independent on March 30, 2008.

© Sunday Independent 2008. All rights reserved.

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CSVR is a multi-disciplinary institute that seeks to understand and prevent violence, heal its effects and build sustainable peace at the community, national and regional levels.

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