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Lesson from South Africa for US gun owners


Chicago TribuneThe day we handed in our gun was one of the happiest of my life.

The weapon was a black 9mm pistol, heavy and cold in the hand, loaded with sinister potential. It had been in our possession for several years, but had become most relevant to our everyday lives when we moved to a farm in South Africa's Mpumalanga province.

The property was unfortified: there were no farm gates, electric fences or burglar bars, no alarm system. Instead, we secured ourselves from within, locking a series of doors in the century-old farmhouse until we were imprisoned in the capsule that was our sleeping quarters, protected from real and imagined threats by our wits and the loaded gun that was removed from the safe each night and placed beneath the bed.

It was a necessary precaution in a country rendered dysfunctional with violence: according to Sean Christie, author of Plaasmoord: Behind the Violence on South African Farms, over 1000 farmers and farm workers have been murdered in that country in the past decade alone.

I spent my days reporting on the news that emanated from the region — including the farm attacks where a good outcome involved being merely beaten about the head with sticks — and my nights sleeping lightly, waking in fright when monkeys galloped across the tin roof or unfamiliar cars drove down the dirt track that led to our isolated house.

We spent many long hours driving back and forth between Mpumalanga and Johannesburg, along lonely stretches of road where criminals were known to operate and signs warned motorists not to stop. The gun would be loaded and tucked into the driver's door compartment, ready for a quick draw.

Implicit in our decision to become gun owners was the willingness to use the weapon against any person who would see fit to attack us or to threaten our children's lives. There could be no other reason for choosing to own an object whose most potent and obvious purpose is the firing of a bullet so that it will lodge in the body of a living thing and thus extinguish their life.

The gun that lay under the bed or in the driver's door compartment or even locked inside the safe was not some inanimate piece of metal; it was an object designed with malignant intent, one swiftly transformed into an instrument of violence in the hands of a human being.

It was this awareness that prompted in me a feeling of such equanimity the day we placed our gun and a box of bullets on the countertop of a gun shop near Johannesburg, and signed over its ownership. Our gun licence was cancelled, our means of self-protection removed.

It was the very fact that we'd felt the need to own a weapon in the first place that had compelled us to leave our country and move to Australia, where crime levels are relatively low, gun ownership strictly controlled and personal security safeguarded largely through a culture of mutual respect.

Living defensively, armed as though for war, is uncivilised, I had discovered; it removes dignity from both the person wielding the weapon and the one staring down the barrel of the gun; it doesn't mitigate your fears but intensifies them so that you are always on heightened alert, hand on holster, hopeful that you will be able to shoot the hypothetical perpetrator before he can disarm you and end your life instead.

We never had to use our gun, but I feared the day when I would have to make the split-second decision to kill another human being. I knew that such an action would leave irreversible scars on my psyche; it would draw me into a brutal narrative of which I really wanted no part.

For most of my male contemporaries, there was no question that they would kill their attacker first, fire a warning shot second. It wasn't just self-preservation driving them, but the evolutionary instinct to fight; this same machismo seems to drive the gun culture in the United States, where regular mass shootings are the tragic consequence of mass gun ownership.

It takes a mature society to handle weapons responsibly, and a truly liberated one to relinquish them altogether.

Walking into the parking lot that afternoon after giving up our gun, I was overwhelmed with a sense of liberation and relief. We might well have been hijacked on our way home, but it was more important to me that I reject violence and any part I might have in it. My time as a gun owner had taught me that the freedom to bear arms is no freedom at all. 

Catherine Marshall headshotCatherine Marshall is a journalist and travel writer. Flickr image by Gregory Wild-Smith.  

Topic tags: Catherine Marshall, Sandy Hook, Connecticut, South Africa, apartheid, gun control



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A great opinion piece, an excellent article. So very true: the freedom to bear arms is no freedom!

Jorge Salavert | 17 December 2012  

I admire your magnanimity, Catherine, even as I despair of the American public's ever getting out of that cycle of fear and machismo. I was gobsmacked to hear the response of one American to this latest terible shooting that it was a pity no-one at the school had a weapon with which they could have proteted themselves! But I do think that the first step to changing such a culture would be well devised gun laws. They would eventually induce the desirable change in public attitudes to gun ownership.

Joe Castley | 17 December 2012  

Thank you for a very illuminating article Catherine.Gun ownership and the right to bear arms are not acts promoting peace and freedom but continuing war -peacetime. Your description of living in a state of constant fear and anxiety and how humans have to adapt to their local living conditions really highlighted how uncivilised life is in the US.Life is then about survival; inherently defensive with an inbuilt tension and insanity surrounding 'everyday' weaponry and the 'enemy' .. For the boy in Connecticut : I feel this would not have to be planned assault, just an unbearable tension,emotional reaction and a release of anger/stress.He is barely an adult, many other shooters are children/teenagers in these massacres.Thank you Catherine, your words need to be read in Congress.

Catherine | 17 December 2012  

Nothing good ever came from a gun. Thanks Catherine.

Jennerator1 | 17 December 2012  

Thank you - a much needed "shot" of liberated thinking today.

Val | 17 December 2012  

Good for you. However, the right to bear arms is enshrined in the constitution for a very good reason. Citizens should have a right to defend themselves and their private property from their own wayward government as well as violent criminals. The answer is not simply take away citizens rights, but maybe to screen potential gun owners more efficiently. Unfortunately, with freedom comes responsibility, and the answer is not to take away those freedoms because they are being abused, but to limit abuse through education and psychological screening perhaps....

dan | 17 December 2012  

A powerful article Catherine. Your words: 'It takes a mature society to handle weapons responsibly, and a truly liberated one to relinquish them altogether' says it all. A great concluding sentence. Can this be published in the American press?

Anne | 17 December 2012  

Awesome stuff, Catherine.

Irfan | 17 December 2012  

A commendable piece of heartfelt and impassioned journalism finding its reflective place amid the commentary following yet another instance of human madness perpetrated on a now devastated small town community in the USA. Once again the issue of weaponry is on the agenda. Who could argue with the 'responsible use/social maturity' principle regarding firearms but the links implied between this and true social liberation is,I believe, stretching the argument and possibly perverting the cause of the core issue that is, I agree, a weeping sore in the American psyche. I have been a recreational hunter and target shooter for over fifty years, and I can assure Catherine that I would in no way feel 'more liberated' by the act of handing in the firearms that have been and will continue to be part and parcel of my enjoyable trips to the bush and the range with family and friends.

Paul Goodland | 17 December 2012  

a magnificent magnanimous article! a truly free society would be much much more adept at conflict resolution skills than sharpshooter skills. violence begins with lack of anger management brought on by an authoritarian judgmental mindset. liberation from that would be a good start.

walter p komarnicki | 18 December 2012  

DISAGREE. And the facts prove why we have a problem. You giving up your right to protection does not stop criminals from killing you. My God says "he who lives by the sword, will die by the sword" and I have no issue arranging a meeting between said criminal and my God when my life is threatened or that of my loved ones. South Africa has the highest rape rate and one of the highest murder rates - we shouldn't even point fingers at the USA's rate when it comes to death via guns - we have a worse problem than them.

Fernanda Rocha | 18 December 2012  

A powerful message, Catherine. Welcome to Australia. We need more new-comers with values like yours - people who take great risks to leave violence behind.

Phil Armit | 21 December 2012  

This is the most powerful article I have read on this issue.I pray it may have the widest of circulation in the places that need it most.

Susan Emeleus | 21 December 2012  

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