The Limits of Vigilantism: Guns, Oscar Pistorius, and the NRA

The murder trial of South Africa’s accomplished Olympian, Oscar Pistorius, is bringing many key issues into the spotlight. We are once again reminded how much the mass media loves covering celebrities. The case also provides an opportunity for international news outlets to explore the widespread culture of violence that still grips South Africa. The timing of the Pistorius affair is also interesting, given renewed attention to gun violence in the United States.

Oscar Pistorius has not had a full hearing in court, but his defense seems to rest on the foundation of self-defense. The star runner says that he fired because he suspected that an intruder had entered his well-fortified house. If his account is true, Pistorius’ actions reveal a clear bias toward vigilantism and a distrust in the ability of the state to protect citizens from criminals. After having spent significant time in South Africa  in recent years, I can say that there is a strong basis for this lack of confidence in the South African government. Even so, it is worth remembering that the month-long football (soccer) World Cup tournament (2010) occurred in South Africa with almost no serious crime perpetrated against foreign visitors. Violent crime remains a serious problem in the country, but the primary foundation for that violence is the long period of apartheid that preceded the present era. The white minority government of the National Party oversaw a police state, and the African National Congress (ANC) and other resistance groups fought back with targeted violence.

In the United States, a country that shares a “wild frontier” culture of European settlement with South Africa, a gun culture of vigilantism also persists. Sadly, too many Americans are ill-informed about the costs of our gun culture. For starters, three out of five victims of gun violence in America are suicides. With more limited access to firearms – either through personal choice or tighter gun laws – many of these suicides would not occur. As well, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and other gun rights groups have stifled open discussion of the risks associated with gun ownership. As the MSNBC commentator Touré notes, the NRA is quick to point to the self-defense benefits of gun ownership, while downplaying the true facts about gun violence. Research indicates that a person living in a home with a gun is more than 20 times more likely to be injured or killed by that weapon than by the weapon of an armed intruder.

The following quote from Dr. Art Kellermann, a health policy analyst at the RAND Corporation, accords with the society-wide statistics on gun violence in the United States:

… as a young ER doc, I wasn’t seeing too many bad guys shot by homeowners . . . I was seeing kids shot by another child while they played with a gun they had found. I saw spouses who had shot one or the other in a family dispute. And I saw older individuals and sometimes teenage kids who used a gun to either take their life or attempt to take their life.

The NRA is right to point to the political importance of gun ownership in resisting tyranny (see a previous post from this blog). That fact should not obscure a more balanced discussion of vigilantism and the true dynamics of gun violence.


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