"God made men and women equal and Smith and Wesson makes damn sure it stays that way". A clear warning – even a call to arms – this slogan appeared on posters pasted up in Yeoville during the early 1990's when the Yeoville Rapist terrorised women living in the area. The posters provoked controversy and were subsequently removed as not everyone agreed with their stance. But there were those who felt that a gun provided better protection than the local police force, who had not only delayed informing the community that a serial rapist was at large, but had also failed to catch him.
This desire to avoid becoming a helpless victim is precisely what gun dealers and some members of the gun lobby appeal to when trying to sell guns to women. US groups such as Safety for Women and Responsible Motherhood (SWARM) as well as Arming Women Against Rape and Endangerment (AWARE) have argued that a gun is a woman's best friend, as well as a form of empowerment in the face of male aggression towards women.
Elements of this argument have also come up in opposition to the Firearms Control Bill currently before Parliament. Here much reliance has been placed on South Africa's appalling rape statistics to support the claim that women should be encouraged to own guns to defend themselves. New statistics have even been invented for the occasion, with an e-mail in support of unrestricted gun ownership claiming at one point, that 90% of rapists are HIV-positive.
These arguments are dishonest and manipulative. Apart from their dubious use of statistics, they conveniently ignore the fact that women are at much greater risk of being harmed by their fathers, husbands, boy-friends, and other men they know, than they are at risk of being harmed by strangers. While it is easy to urge women to shoot strangers, it is far more threatening of the status quo to suggest that women start shooting their male family members, friends and acquaintances. In particular, suggesting that women start shooting their husbands or boy-friends to defend themselves from domestic violence may be too close to home for some members of the gun lobby. After all, many of those who use their firearms to intimidate, injure, and even kill their female partners are registered gun owners.
When women do shoot their abusive partners in self-defence, there is no guarantee that the courts will look sympathetically upon their actions. Elizabeth Boucher for example, found that out to her cost when she was sentenced to fifteen years imprisonment for shooting her abusive husband in self defence.
This is not to say that women should not own guns. If they are responsible and non-violent and wish to own a gun for self-defence purposes, then they should apply to do so – but knowing that they may very well have to use it in protecting themselves from men they know – not balaclava-clad strangers.
We should also ask why women are expected to go out and arm themselves to prevent rape, murder and domestic violence. The prevention of such violence is the task of the police, the courts, the hospitals, educational institutions, religious bodies, and communities. The failure of these various institutions to prevent violence against women is something they should be held accountable for. Ultimately, it is South African society that must ensure women's constitutional right to safety and security – not guns.
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, 2 July 2000.