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No, South Africa doesn’t have world’s 2nd-highest rate of firearm-related deaths

The police ministry has been making a spirited case for changes to the country’s primary gun law. But, not all its claims add up.

  • The media article the police cited was correct about South Africa’s ranking. But the study reported on was only of a handful of countries - 27.

  • Using more inclusive data, South Africa placed 16th globally, and as high as 34th, in 2015 when the bill was sent to cabinet. According to the most recent data we found, the country was 31st in 2019.

  • There is little doubt that South Africa has one of the world’s highest homicide rates, with firearms commonly used. But it is important that accurate and up to date data is used to inform policy.

South Africa has been debating proposed revisions to the primary law that governs who can own guns in the country and how they are used.

The planned changes to the Firearms Control Act would include removing self-defence as a valid reason for having a firearm. 

The ensuing debate has, among others, drawn in pro-gun lobbies, gun-control proponents and political parties.

The deadline for the public to comment on the draft firearms control bill lapsed on 2 August 2021. Published for comment in May, it had by the end of June attracted more than 100,000 written submissions, according to the police ministry.

As part of the bill, an analysis of its costs, known as a socio-economic impact assessment, is required. Published in May, the bill’s impact report made a claim that stressed the problem of gun related crimes in the country.  

“In an international study in 2015 South Africa was found to have the second highest rate of firearm-related deaths in the world,” it said.

(Note: In February 2015 the firearms control amendment bill 2015 was submitted to cabinet. The 2021 bill and its impact report replaced this bill.)

South Africa has among the highest homicide rates globally according to the World Health Organization and the United Nations. Firearms are also the most commonly used weapon for murder, according to the country’s 2019/20 police statistics

But is the claim about South Africa’s  firearm-related deaths on the mark? We took a look. 

Statistic from 2013 study by US doctors

The socio-economic impact report did not provide any other details about the statistic. We asked the South African Police Services (SAPS) to clarify which 2015 study the report referred to. 

Brigadier Johannes van der Walt, the operational legal support section head at the SAPS, sent us a link to an article published in Business Tech, a South African business news website, on 22 June 2015.

South Africa “was found to have the second highest rate of gun-related deaths in the world at 9.4 deaths per 100,000 people”, the article said, adding that the country had only the 16th highest number of guns per 100 people. 

The article said the finding was from a study by US medical professionals that used data from 2010 to 2012. It linked to a news story that identified them as Dr Sripal Bangalore and Dr Franz Messerli from New York City.

Bangalore told Africa Check their study was published in 2013. “All data was prior to 2013,” he said, and referred us to the research for “individual data points”.

Study did rank South Africa second for gun deaths

According to the figures given in study, South Africa did rank second for its rate of firearm-related deaths globally, at 9.4 deaths per 100,000 people. The US placed first, with 10.2 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people.

When doing comparisons, rates per 100,000 people are used because they take into account the number of deaths and population sizes

The study’s data on firearm-related deaths for the country was from the World Health Organization Europe. But the link to this database returned an error message.

The WHO European regional office told us that the link seems to relate “to the European Detailed Mortality Database (DMDB) but it does not seem to be accessible”. 

We therefore could not establish which specific period the data covered.

Further, the study’s aim was not to establish global firearm-related deaths. Rather, it sought to measure the effect of gun ownership and mental illness on such deaths in a country. It argued that more guns do not reduce crime. 

‘International study’ only includes 27 countries

Dr Richard Matzopoulos is the chief specialist scientist and co-director of the South African Medical Research Council’s burden of disease research unit. 

He told Africa Check that it was true South Africa ranked second among the  27 countries that were included in the study. But “there are many other countries that are not included”. 

Matzopoulos said though the reasons were not clear, this could be “because this information was not available from the Small Arms Survey, which seems to be the source”.

Bangalore and Messerli’s study said that the countries included were those not engaged in civil war and which had available data on gun ownership from the 2007 Small Arms Survey

The survey is an annual project of the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland. It seeks to be “the principal source of public information on all aspects of small arms and armed violence”.

Other data ranks South Africa 34th in 2015

We therefore went in search of other data. The WHO mentioned the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) as a source of comparable data. 

The IHME is an independent global health research center at the University of Washington in the US. Its global burden of disease study has cause of death data for 204 countries and territories.

Amelia Apfel, an IHME spokesperson, told Africa Check their study includes three categories of firearm-related deaths: interpersonal violence, self-harm by firearm, and unintentional firearm injuries.

In 2015 the study ranked South Africa 29th for interpersonal violence by firearm, 67th for self-harm by firearm and 67th for unintentional firearm injuries.  

Global burden of disease 2015 firearm death figures

Firearm death category

Count

Rate per 100,000

Global ranking (rate)

Interpersonal violence (murder)

3,076

5.8

29

Self-harm (suicide)

370

0.7

67

Unintentional 

270

0.5

67

SOURCE: IHME

Using the data for these three categories, we calculated that in 2015 South Africa had a rate of 7 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people. This placed it 34th globally. The central American country of El Salvador had the highest rate, at 81.9 per 100,000.

The IHME estimated the total number of deaths that year as 3,716. A count of 3,682 firearm-related deaths recorded by state mortuaries for 2015/16 was given in South Africa’s parliament. 

But this was in only four of the country’s nine provinces: Gauteng, Limpopo, Western Cape and an unnamed fourth province. We weren’t able to get complete numbers for the reporting year. We have asked the IHME for comment on this and will update this report with their response.

Second database still doesn’t support the claim

The University of Sydney’s school of public health also collects evidence-based international data on gun violence. This is published at GunPolicy.org. For 2015 their data ranked South Africa 16th out of 88 countries, with a rate of 10.6 deaths per 100,000. 

The database showed there were 5,622 deaths in South Africa in 2015, for when its information is most current. This was sourced from the WHO.

El Salvador was again first with a rate of 78.5 firearm-related deaths per 100,000 people.  

Phillip Alpers, is associate professor at the school of health and the founding director of GunPolicy.org. He told Africa Check that the claim could only be  made by “ignoring” high-risk countries for which there wasn’t publicly available data.

But even when considering “obvious countries” for which there were total gun figures, “data published by Brazil, the United States, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia show higher rates than South Africa”, Alpers said.

South Africa 31st in data from 2019

The most recent data we could find was from the IHME, for 2019. That year , South Africa was 28th for interpersonal violence by firearm, 67th for self-harm by firearm and 65th for unintentional firearm injuries. 

The institute estimated total firearm-related deaths at 3,610, placing it 31st globally with a rate of 6.5 per 100,000 people.  

Conclusion: Available data does not back up police ministry’s claim

An official report into the socio-economic impact of proposed changes to South Africa’s primary gun law claimed that the country had the second-highest rate of firearm-related deaths in the world in 2015.

The “international study” referred to did rank South Africa second, but it covered the years 2010 to 2012 and not 2015, and included only 27 countries.

More inclusive and comparable data ranks South Africa 16th, and as high as 34th, in 2015. The most recent data we could find was for 2019, when the country placed 31st out of 204 countries.

The available evidence therefore does not support the police ministry’s claim.

Africa Check holds public figures accountable for what they say. Support us to fact-check public claims.

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