Lulu Xingwana is right: Reeva Steenkamp would still be alive if Oscar Pistorius did not own a gun. But intimate-partner violence is more complicated.
Had Oscar Pistorius not had a gun, there may have been no world-famous Valentine’s Day killing, the minister for women, children and people with disabilities, Lulu Xingwana, believes.
"Domestic violence is exacerbated by easy access to guns. We are making a call for stricter gun control," she said at a media briefing on violence against women on Tuesday. "As a country we need to wage a sustained and effective campaign against the availability of guns in our homes and streets."
Xingwana previously tried to make political hay while the Pistorius sun shone, briefly sitting in on the bail hearing for the Blade Runner before joining a small contingent of ANC Women’s League demonstrators outside the court to call for Pistorius to be kept in custody for the duration of his trial.
Besides being a troublesome attempt by the executive branch of government to influence a judicial decision, the call for bail to be denied also held no value in terms of Xingwana’s mandate to protect women. There is some evidence that rapid and harsh sentencing of murderers may deter others from committing such crimes, and the release of accused rapists on bail is a known problem. But there is no scientific evidence to even remotely suggest that denying bail to the killer of an intimate partner will in any way reduce the staggeringly high rate of such crimes in South Africa.
In fact, extrapolating available data suggests that the biggest impact of denying bail to accused in cases of intimate femicide may be in keeping them alive: a 2008 study found that nearly a fifth of men who kill their female partners commit suicide within a week of doing so.
However, in calling for the number of guns in homes to be reduced, Xingwana may have the beginnings of a point.
“Reducing the number of firearms is a proper preventative strategy,” says gender activist Lisa Vetten, who has been involved in several studies on femicide, or the murder of women by intimate male partners, in South Africa. “It is certainly a way more intelligent intervention than dishing out life sentences all around.”
The picture on how guns relate to violence against women in South Africa is pretty clear. For starters, men tend to own guns, often for the wrong reasons. “Gun ownership is mainly a male phenomenon, a means to demonstrate manhood, particularly among young men,” wrote a team from the Medical Research Council in a 2010 paper on firearms and gender violence published in the South African Medical Journal. “While men are the predominating victims of gun violence, women are most vulnerable behind closed doors, where guns are used to intimidate, control, hurt and kill intimate partners.”
Anecdotal evidence suggests that, sometimes, women die absent of clear intent when guns are involved in arguments, in something approaching (though not quite qualifying as) a manner accidental. But with only two people in the room, most often, and only the perpetrator surviving, that evidence will always be suspect.
What is objectively clear, however, is that men far more often kill intimate partners with licensed firearms rather than with illegal guns – even though surveys show that nearly twice as many people have access to illegal guns than to licensed ones. Based on available statistics, removing illegal firearms from circulation would have only a slight impact on the number of women killed in the home, but stricter licensing and programmes for the voluntary relinquishing of legal weapons could, perhaps, save the lives of many people.
Combined with research that has consistently shown that guns in homes are more likely to be turned on an inhabitant than be used in defending against an intruder, then, it would seem that Xingwana is right: fewer guns would mean fewer dead women, and statistically, ignoring the still-contested details of the death of Steenkamp, she may have been among them.
Recent data takes that beyond just theory; with stricter gun control there has, indeed, been a decrease in the number of women killed by the men in their lives, and no other factor seems to account for that decrease.
But while controlling guns represent a low-hanging fruit that could see an immediate impact on statistics, research has also shown that it is far from the full picture. It’s just that every other intervention would require doing things that the government and the criminal justice system has failed to do, magnificently so, and for decades.
Domestic abuse goes unreported
Through piecemeal numbers, it appears that femicide rarely comes out of the blue. In some cases that have been extensively studied, researchers have found a considerable history of domestic disturbance, and even physical abuse, as a leading indicator. In South Africa, analysts say, police investigation of reports of domestic disturbances are desultory if they happen at all, and such events are almost never reported to social workers, who theoretically have the ability to intervene and help defuse troubled relationships. Domestic abuse, meanwhile, goes unreported, with society’s tendency to look away rather than risk confrontation cited as the root problem.
Research has also shown a strong, nearly overwhelming, correlation between alcohol use and femicide – including in the victims, to the acute discomfort of even the researchers.
“A high [blood alcohol concentration] may represent a self-destructive element in a risk-taking situation amongst female homicide victims,” concluded a 1992 study out of the University of Cape Town. A similar study, in the Western Cape in 2009, found that 62% of murdered women had high levels of alcohol in their systems at the time.
The alcohol consumption of perpetrators is harder to determine, through a combination of lack of samples drawn, over-burdened testing facilities and poor reporting, but it is generally assumed that drunk men are more likely to kill women.
Yet limiting alcohol consumption is difficult, an issue loaded both politically and economically, and any suggestion that victims could have prevented their own murders nearly unthinkable.
Then there is research that shows that men drawn to guns may simply be more violent to begin with, and that men are quite prepared to kill women by other means (mostly blunt-force beatings, with strangulation less preferred but not unknown).
“The use of firearms [in femicide] have a lot to do with whether you can afford a gun,” says Vetten. “If can't afford a gun you will probably use something else.”
This time, it seems, Xingwana is right: fewer guns would mean fewer dead women in South Africa. It would not, however, solve the problem of femicide, not by any stretch of the imagination.