HOW HE SEES IT South Africa debates right to carry arms

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- One of South Africa's rugby-football stars of some years back woke up early one morning recently to hear his daughter's car start up. Fearing it was being stolen, he fired shots at the departing car. Then he found his daughter dead behind the steering wheel.
In Johannesburg, a young boy was shot dead in cold blood and his brother seriously wounded by criminals who left the family's suburban home with nothing but the two youngsters' cell phones. "My son's life was worth a cell phone," remarked his distressed father.
These are just two of many such tragedies in which people get killed or injured practically daily in South Africa. It is a sad reality that has been casting a shadow over the country's otherwise bright future ever since political violence drew to an end when it switched to an all-race democracy 10 years ago.
But in their particularly painful way the two incidents go to the heart of a raging debate over the right to carry arms, each serving to illustrate the points made by the opposing camps.
The anti-gun lobby used the frightful scenario of a father mistakenly shooting his daughter to underscore their point that South Africans simply revert to guns too easily -- that it is symptomatic of a gun-crazy society.
The pro-gun lobby has been using situations like that of the two boys getting shot to illustrate the need for self-protection, in the form of gun ownership, against armed criminals for whom life is not worth anything.
The cause of the polemic is legislation just passed by the South African parliament that aims to restrict gun ownership. The Firearms Control Act will require all registered and prospective gun owners to undergo strict proficiency tests, and to prove that their firearms are safely stored. Applicants with criminal records, a history of drug or alcohol abuse, or with mental problems can forget about getting a license.
The law has wide ramifications, as the intention behind it is to reduce the number of arms in circulation by making it as difficult as possible to obtain a gun license.
Character tests
The private security sector, for instance, is being seriously affected, as security firms are being required to disarm their personnel and submit them to stringent proficiency and character tests before issuing them guns.
An unwritten aspect of the law is the time it takes to meet the requirements, with the result that a considerable period could pass before their personnel are armed again. Meanwhile, they say, the criminals are coming at them with guns. How are they supposed to defend themselves and those they get paid to protect?
The lucrative hunting industry is another being seriously affected. Under the new law, sports and game hunters have to belong to an accredited association to be licensed. But not even the standards have been set yet for such a body, and meanwhile the industry says the uncertainty is costing it business.
Gunshops are as distressed. It now takes many months and hard work for a buyer to get the necessary license, so to many prospective gun owners it is not worth the trouble.
Gun owners
Even registered gun owners will need to comply with the new requirements, with the result that many would rather want to get rid of their firearms. It means many gunshops will go out of business.
The various opposing groups and institutions clubbed together and reverted to the Supreme Court to have the law put on hold, but they lost their case. It has, however, not stopped the controversy, the points of which are rather familiar.
The pro-arms lobby argues that the problem lies not with guns but with humans, and not so much with legal owners as with the illegal possessors.
On the latter, they have a point. The country has an estimated 4 million unlicensed guns. These are mostly in the hands of criminals who use them in hijackings, robberies, gang warfare and such, routinely with dire results for their victims or anybody who gets in their way.
Gun-smuggling is a big industry, a great part of the illegal guns being a leftover from the region's past civil wars. But a good many also come from legal owners who, through burglaries or negligence, have their arms land in wrong hands.
Family murders
The latter is a strong argument in favor of the state's clampdown. But the anti-gun lobby, calling on several studies of the past few years, makes as fervent a point of the regular use of licensed guns for purposes like family murders, of which South Africa has an unfortunately high incidence.
Such resistance as there is to the new law may still be founded, to a degree, in the bellicose political culture of the recent past. But the main motivation is people's sense of vulnerability to often well-armed bandits who care little for human life. .
X Leon Marshall is a veteran journalist in Johannesburg, South Africa. Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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