A free society is an armed society

It came to light late last year that government intends to introduce legislation that will remove self-defence as a valid reason for acquiring a firearm licence. Such an amendment to the Firearms Control Act will be part of government’s well-intentioned, but disastrous, plan to rid South Africa of firearms. This would be a dream come true for the many violent criminals that roam our streets who have never cared about what the law says, and a complete betrayal of law-abiding citizens who would be left defenceless and reliant on a government that itself has acknowledged its substantial law enforcement shortcomings.

Section 12 of the Constitution guarantees everyone’s right to freedom and security of the person, which includes the right to be free from all forms of violence, and the right to bodily integrity. This, read with the section 11 right to life and the section 25 right to own private property, in my view, accumulatively implies a right to defend oneself using appropriate tools.

This oft-repeated, and now comical, notion that South Africans must rely on the South African Police Service (SAPS) has truly outlived its usefulness. The SAPS, no doubt composed of hardworking and dedicated professionals, has failed miserably, and continues to fail with each passing hour, to protect the people of South Africa from the scourge of violent crime. Fifty murders a day and, the many more rapes, robberies, and hijackings, do not provide testimony in SAPS’ favour.

In October 2018, the National Police Commissioner, Khehla Sithole, told Parliament that SAPS has become “an all-purpose agency with an overstretched mandate [that] is impossible to fulfil.” In early 2019, it was reported in the Sunday Times that nearly half of all 10111 emergency calls are not attended to, or have the police arrive late to the scene.

South Africans have had to rally to one another’s support.

A Facebook group with 36,000 members, Centurion Concerned Citizens – part of the broader ‘concerned citizens’ movement – uses a smartphone app called “Zello” (www.zello.com) to report and respond to crimes in the Centurion area. This community is also indirectly linked to other large social media groups consisting of thousands of locals, including various community watch organisations, private security companies, and police representatives. When a crime is in progress, citizens quickly open the Zello app, give a short statement of the problem – the nature of the crime and the location – and within minutes, well-armed citizen-responders are on the scene.

The police usually arrive somewhat later, and the criminals are handed over.

When I moved to Johannesburg, I was surprised that there was no local movement as active and involved as the one back in Centurion. The Centurion community is truly a model for people around South Africa to imitate, especially in townships and rural areas. The angst locals experience when waiting for SAPS to intervene in an ongoing crime has effectively been replaced with a sense of near-certainty that an intervention from the community will come within minutes.

Using private security firms – another appropriate tool for self-defence that is too tightly regulated by government – is too expensive for many, and even if such services are used, waiting ten minutes for them to arrive when one’s life is in immediate danger is usually not an option. Being able to rely on neighbours, and finally, on oneself, to fend off the scum of our society, is extremely important.

Without the ability of private citizens to access, own and use firearms, the whole ‘concerned citizens’ idea would crumble. No reasonable person will enter a dangerous situation to help their fellows if they are unable to also protect themselves. South Africans need a method of protecting themselves from imminent harm, and for better or worse, the most effective method with which to achieve that is to arm themselves. Externalising this responsibility for self-defence to government is naïve at best.

Firearms are scary. At their core, they are made to kill. But it is because criminals have acquired them – and will always acquire them, regardless of how hard we legislate or regulate – that those who wish to use them in defence of themselves, their families, and their property, also need a reasonable level of access.

The only thing that a strict, restrictive firearm policy achieves is that it makes life more difficult for law-abiding citizens. Armed criminals, by their very nature, do not care what the law or firearm regulations say. Law-abiding citizens, on the other hand, care very much, and labour under an unreasonable regime of mistrust and micromanagement by government. Now, these same law-abiding citizens might lose the right to use firearms to protect themselves and their families if government pushes ahead with the amendment to the Firearms Control Act.

In addition to the provisions in the Bill of Rights that I believe imply South Africans should be allowed to defend themselves and their property with firearms, the Constitution also enshrines the values of freedom, human dignity, and equality, as the founding values of our society.

How could one claim South Africa is a free society when law-abiding citizens are prohibited from owning and using the most logical tools of self-defence? Indeed, would the dignity of such citizens be respected, knowing that many of them will find themselves faced with armed criminals without an effective means of resistance? And finally, when the perverted consequence (as opposed to intention) of the law is to empower criminals and disempower citizens, are we living up to the principle of equality?

If South Africa is to be a free society, it must allow, and possibly embrace, an armed society. The Constitution implies it, and justice demands it.

Martin van Staden is Legal Researcher at the Free Market Foundation and is pursuing a Master of Laws degree at the University of Pretoria. He is author of The Constitution and the Rule of Law (2019).

This article was first published in City Press on 15 February 2019

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