Gun Laws, Personal Defense and the Oscar Pistorius Shooting

Double-amputee sprinter and former Paralympic champion Oscar Pistorius claims he "felt a sense of terror" the night of Feb. 14.


Believing someone had broken into his gated home in Pretoria, South Africa, Pistorius strapped on his prosthetic legs, walked from the bedroom to the bathroom, and fired four shots through the door — hitting his girlfriend, South African model Reeva Steenkamp, three times. It was a case of mistaken identity, according to Pistorius, who alleged Steenkamp had gotten up to use the bathroom, and he didn't notice she wasn't in bed while stricken with fear. After trying to resuscitate her, Steenkamp died in Pistorius' arms before the paramedics arrived.



The prosecution, however, tells a different story, one of premeditated murder possibly spurred by a text message from a rival. Reports also swirl around a bloody cricket bat found in Pistorius' home, either used to attack Steenkamp, or used in self-defense against Pistorius.

The South African courts will decide which story is true, but the facts of the case — that Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend — are an all-too familiar story of reckless gun ownership, and in this case, one that even some of the strictest gun laws on the planet could not prevent.



If the reality is that Pistorius did in fact murder Steenkamp with intent, the attention is shifted toward the government process that allowed Pistorius to own that 9mm pistol in the first place — but obtaining that pistol is no easy task in South Africa.

In a country notorious for its high crime rate, there are about 5.95 million firearms in civilian possession — that's about 12 firearms per 100 people — with the number of registered firearms estimated at 3,737,676, according to GunPolicy.org.

Those numbers rank South Africa at No. 17 in comparison to the number of civilian firearms in a survey of 178 countries.

In 2009, there were 16,834 murders in South Africa; that same year, there were 15,953 murders in the U.S. However, in 2007, there were 8,319 gun homicides in South Africa compared to the United States' 11,101.

Gun ownership in South Africa is categorized as restrictive: The right to own a firearm is not guaranteed by South African law, and only licensed gun owners may possess, acquire or transfer firearms.

Applicants for a license must be at least 21 years old, and are required to provide a valid reason to possess a firearm — this could include hunting, target shooting, collection, personal protection or security. Applicants must also pass a background check, and third party references — such as an interview with a spouse — are required.

Then, the applicant must display an understanding of firearm ownership law and safety as tested in a theoretical or practical training course at a registered shooting range. Gun owners must re-apply for and re-qualify for licenses and competency certificates, and are only permitted to own one firearm per license.

In short, there are quite a few hoops to jump through in order to own a gun in South Africa.

Perhaps the most glaring obstacle — at least from an American perspective — is the competency certification, meaning the government can deem an applicant fit or unfit to own a firearm.

Thought prosecutors initially said Pistorius had a history of making threats to others, and alleged that boxes of steroids had been found in his home after Steenkamp's death, those allegations were called into question as the cross-examination from police investigator Hilton Botha faltered.

(Note: News outlets later learned Botha himself faces seven counts of attempted murder after he and three other officers drunkenly opened fire on a minibus full of passengers.)

As mentioned, part of the competency certificate acquirement process requires all applicants to possess a basic understanding of firearm safety.

Which leads us back to Pistorius' defense. In his words, he got out of bed, went from the bedroom to the bathroom, and fired into the door, believing an intruder to be inside — he never actually saw his target.

That action flies in the face of responsible gun ownership. It's one of Jeff Cooper's Four Rules — "Be sure of your target and what is beyond it." — and one of the first lessons gun owners should learn.

Nevertheless, we have a case in which a man shot and killed his girlfriend through a bathroom door, and if Pistorius' story of mistaken identity is to be believed, then he shouldn't have had a gun in the first place; obviously, firing through a bathroom door at an unidentified target is reckless behavior and uncharacteristic of a responsible gun owner.

"You hear a noise on the other side of your bathroom door, so you just blindly shoot through the door?" said James Tarr of Personal Defense TV. "'¦ If he had ever been made aware of the four basic safety rules of gun handling, and followed them, she would still be alive. '¦ It'd be one thing if he saw a hulking silhouette, the glint of a 'weapon,' whatever."

South African officials agree, saying Pistorius acted recklessly and in a manner uncharacteristic of a responsible gun owner. Andre Pretorius — president of the Professional Firearm Trainers Council, which is a regulatory body for firearms instructors in South Africa — said if Pistorius' story is true, basic knowledge of firearms safety should have kept him from firing through a closed door.

"You can't shoot through a closed door," Pretorius said in an interview with The Associated Press. "People who own guns and have been through the training, they know that shooting through a door is not going to go through South African law as an accident."

In the same article, Johannesburg attorney Martin Hood said Pistorius' account, that he acted in self-defense, is unacceptable, according to South African law, which says a person may only use lethal force when directly faced with an attack — or the threat of an attack — that could result in serious injury or death.

So by Pistorius' own account, Hood said, the runner is guilty of the South African equivalent of manslaughter — not much of a defense.

"If he fired through a closed door, there was no threat to him. It's as simple as that," Hood said. "He can't prove an attack on his life ... In my opinion, at the very least, he is guilty of culpable homicide. '¦ He should have tried to get out of the situation."

That is, of course, assuming Pistorius' story is true.

If the prosecution is correct — if Pistorius took Steenkamp's life with malicious intent — the question of gun control arises: Could the government or the police done anything to prevent this tragedy?

"Wherever you have people, people do stupid things," Tarr said. "The cops can't stop it. If they could, it would have happened by now."

In other words, if murder was truly Pistorius' intent, it was going to happen, whether it was with a 9mm pistol, or a mysteriously bloody cricket bat. No government intervention short of unlawfully locking Pistorius away could have stopped it. A tragic reality, yes, but in a nation with one of the worst crime epidemics in the world — assault, rape, murder, etc. — barring law-abiding citizens from defending themselves simply isn't an option.

The point is, gun control will not curb murderous intentions, nor will it make people who can't exhibit a basic knowledge of firearms safety more responsible. So would it have helped if every single South African was armed to the teeth? Doubtful. The thing about crime is that it's a societal and cultural problem, one that manifests itself in many different ways; those hell-bent on carrying out evil acts cannot and will not be deterred simply by someone standing by and saying, "Don't do that." Until the governement addresses those issues, blood will continue to flow in South Africa.

That argument should sound awfully familiar. Gun control advocates in the U.S. will argue that more gun control will reduce the level of crime, but Pistorius' actions that night — whether they were reckless or malicious — cast that notion into doubt. Even after placing numerous obstacles in the way of citizens trying to obtain a firearm, an innocent life was lost.

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