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Trigger-Happy South Africa Aims to Curb a Love of Guns

With murder rate six times the US's, country plans measures to check runaway gun culture

Lile the United States, South Africa has long been in love with the gun. For generations, white children have been brought up on stories of sharp-shooting Dutch pioneers, grim Boer commandos, and intrepid white hunters.

In the 19th century, young blacks were lured into the European economy not by money, but by the promise of a musket, the wage for a season digging gold.

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Today, youths thrill to tales of drive-by shootings and machine-gun machismo in imported American gangsta rap. And every day, 30 South Africans are shot dead, a rate of 11,000 each year.

Faced with a murder rate six times that of the US, South Africa is increasingly worried that a runaway gun culture is partly to blame.

One in 12 South Africans is now legally licensed to both own and carry a firearm, with handguns by far the most common category among the 4.1 million legally held weapons.

At airports, mild-mannered businessmen line up to check in their designer automatics before boarding flights, retrieving them from smiling flight attendants at the other end. In a Johannesburg mall, a bottle-blonde housewife rummages in her handbag for lipstick, and a nickel-plated .38 clangs to the floor.

The police believe that legally held firearms could be matched by an equal number of illegal weapons, many of them high-powered AK-47 assault rifles left over from the numerous regional conflicts spawned by apartheid.

Recently, Safety and Security Minister Sydney Mufamadi revealed that in the first six months of this year alone, firearms were used in 25,783 robberies, 5,127 murders, and 10,050 attempted murders.

But despite a media obsession with AK-47s, the minister reported that most of the weapons used were believed to be firearms stolen from their legal owners.

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With 2,700 legal firearms reported stolen each month, gun-reform advocates say owning a firearm now makes one more rather than less likely to be a victim of violent crime.

"Increasingly, there is a pattern that where people break into houses" the first thing they look for is the guns, says Adele Kirsten of Gun Free South Africa.

"The fact that you are carrying a firearm doesn't make you safe," agrees Ric de Caris, director of the police force's legal section. "You may have a gun, but it's unlikely you are going to get a chance to use it. A lot of our policemen are being gunned down in the street, and the only thing being taken is their pistol."

Figures released by the police show that nearly 1 in 4 of the firearms stolen since the beginning of the year were taken from a police officer. During the same period, 208 officers were murdered, most of them shot. In the US, with seven times the population, 55 officers were shot dead in 1996.

South African gun control laws allow people to apply for a firearm for hunting, target shooting, collecting, or self defense. Pistols are the most popular, and the law allows licensed owners to carry them on the street, provided they remain concealed.

While the law requires the police to do background checks on applicants, Gun Free South Africa alleges that these are usually cursory. One clause in the existing law allows licensed gun owners to loan their weapon to a designated person, a loophole exploited by many convicted criminals to legally obtain a firearm.

Rashied Staggie, leader of the Hard Living Kids street gang and one of South Africa's most notorious criminals, openly wears a pistol in public.

"The problem with gun law in South Africa is that it is not implemented," says Ms. Kirsten. "There is corruption, there is negligence, there is incompetence."

In an effort to reduce the number of firearms on the street, the government has set up a policy-review group, including members of the pro- and antigun lobbies, to consider reforms in gun-ownership laws.

A package of suggestions - some of them conflicting - has now been sent to Mr. Mufamadi for possible inclusion in a new strategy that would also combat trafficking and possession of illegal firearms.

Among them are proposals for tougher background checks, compulsory training, and annual inspection and renewal of permits. One proposal would introduce a special permit for carrying firearms, as opposed to keeping them at home.

Above all, says Mr. De Caris, the government is likely to ask in future whether those seeking a gun for self defense really have a special need.

South Africa's pro-gun lobby, which has links to the arms industry and the US National Rifle Association, is vehemently opposed to any further regulation. Mike Stead of Khuseleka - "To Defend" - says that existing restrictions are too tough. He believes that even the ban on convicted criminals should probably go.

"If you have theoretically served your debt to society, you are then subject to the same threats as everybody else," he says. "If a firearm is your only practical means of self defense, why shouldn't you have one?"

According to De Caris, however, there is every chance that the rules will be tightened up, and soon. Unlike the US, South Africa guarantees no constitutional right to bear arms. In the meantime, plans are being made for a new campaign to try and demystify the gun for a new generation.

"At the moment, firearms are a macho thing in South Africa," says De Caris. "We are going to have to make them look like something that is not so cool."

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