Skip to main content

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.

Current Magazine Cover

Enjoy articles like this?

Subscribe to the magazine.

Get access to everything Guns & Ammo has to offer.
Subscribe to the Magazine

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Cameras Don

Cameras Don't Lie: Subsonic 9mm vs. .300 Blackout

In this segment of "Cameras Don't Lie," a subsonic-ammo showdown, 9mm vs. .300 Blackout fired from AR rifles.

Trijicon

Trijicon's New Specialized Reflex Optics (SRO)

The Trijicon SRO is specifically designed for pistol use. The wide field of view and clean, crisp dot makes it easy for users to find and track the dot in both target and competitive shooting applications.

Umarex Air Ruger 10/22 Rifle Review

Umarex Air Ruger 10/22 Rifle Review

In this segment of "Guns & Ammo TV," Gun Tech Editor Richard Nance and Pro-Shooter Jim Tarr head to the range to wring out the Umarex Air Ruger 10/22.

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight – Perfect for Optics-Ready Concealed-Carry Pistols

The people asked and Trijicon answered. Introducing the RMRcc miniature red-dot sight for compact, concealed-carry pistols. Trijicon's new RMRcc features the durability and reliable controls that have made the RMR so successful, but its reduced dimensions make the “Concealed Carry” model better suited for the popular small-frame pistols designed for discreet carry and personal defense.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

Trijicon has dominated the Carry Optic landscape on hard-use handguns for years. With the new RMRcc, they plan on dominating the concealed carry market as well.Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight Review – Perfect for Concealed Carry Optics

Trijicon RMRcc Reflex Sight Review – Perfect for Concealed Carry

Jeremy Stafford - October 01, 2020

Trijicon has dominated the Carry Optic landscape on hard-use handguns for years. With the new...

The first in this new family of Springfield Armory rifles is the Model 2020 Waypoint, the result of years of engineering, testing and evaluation, combined with premium grade components found on rifles costing thousands of dollars more.First Look: Springfield Armory Model 2020 Waypoint Bolt-Action Rifle Rifles

First Look: Springfield Armory Model 2020 Waypoint Bolt-Action Rifle

Guns & Ammo Staff - September 29, 2020

The first in this new family of Springfield Armory rifles is the Model 2020 Waypoint, the...

Springfield Armory's SAINT Edge Pistol may be the best AR pistol on the market.Springfield Armory SAINT Edge Pistol Review Handguns

Springfield Armory SAINT Edge Pistol Review

James Tarr - April 17, 2019

Springfield Armory's SAINT Edge Pistol may be the best AR pistol on the market.

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a zeroed rifle scope. Here's how to sight in your rifle scope setup in five quick-and-easy steps.How to Sight In a Rifle Scope in 5 Steps How-To

How to Sight In a Rifle Scope in 5 Steps

Craig Boddington - June 04, 2018

Whether you're going hunting or to the range, hitting your target is more fun when you have a...

See More Trending Articles

More Industry

A closer look at gun sales from the first half of 2020, and what it says about the market.10 Takeaways from the NSSF Firearms Sales Report Industry

10 Takeaways from the NSSF Firearms Sales Report

Brad Fitzpatrick - November 06, 2020

A closer look at gun sales from the first half of 2020, and what it says about the market.

We all have mentors in life, but for many of us the most influential among them are our dads. As Father's Day approached, I found myself reflecting on my own.Father's Day Thoughts Industry

Father's Day Thoughts

Keith Wood - August 20, 2020

We all have mentors in life, but for many of us the most influential among them are our dads....

On October 30, 2020, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) announced that the 2021 SHOT Show, intended to be held January 19-21, 2021, was cancelled. CANCELLED: 2021 SHOT Show in Las Vegas Industry

CANCELLED: 2021 SHOT Show in Las Vegas

Guns & Ammo Staff - November 02, 2020

On October 30, 2020, the National Shooting Sports Foundation (NSSF) announced that the 2021...

The USA High School Clay Target League announced the clay target disciplines of ‘Sporting Clays' and ‘5-Stand' have been added to their high school clay target shooting programs, in which over 30,000 student athletes participate. USA High School Clay Target League Sporting Clays and 5-Stand Programs Industry

USA High School Clay Target League Sporting Clays and 5-Stand Programs

Guns & Ammo Staff - August 01, 2020

The USA High School Clay Target League announced the clay target disciplines of ‘Sporting...

See More Industry

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE Arrow

Buy Digital Single Issues

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Guns & Ammo App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Guns and Ammo subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now