Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Lesson from South Africa for US gun owners

  • 17 December 2012

The 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