Did gun control cause fall in gun crime? The data backs the claim

Comments 7

Since strict gun controls came into force in 2004, gun crime in South Africa has fallen by more than 21 percent. Did the new controls cause the drop in gun crime as police claimed last week? Their data is inconclusive but cause of death figures from studies of mortuary statistics back their claim.

This report was updated on 16/12/12 after we were contacted about research showing changes in cause of death among woman following the introduction of the Act. This is set out in the report. 16/12/12

On Friday, 30 November 2012, the Supreme Court of Appeal dismissed an order brought by a group of gun owners that would have compelled the minister of police to pay compensation for all firearms voluntarily surrendered for destruction under the Firearms Control Act 2000.

In a statement issued after the hearing, police ministry spokesman Zweli Mnisi welcomed the court’s ruling and explained why the ministry considers the Act so important.

Police claim controls reduced gun crime

The ruling “vindicates the approach of the police ministry to firearms controls,” the spokesman said.

“Tougher controls on the ownership, possession and use of firearms have seen a marked reduction in the incidence of gun-related crime in recent years,” he added.

“Gun control is accordingly at the heart of the ministry’s strategy to combat violent crime,” he continued.

Gun owners disagree

Gun control is, of course, controversial. Following the ministry’s statement, a representative of South African gun clubs, who support the use of guns in sport, contacted Africa Check to question the claim.

We spoke to the South African Gun Owners Association (SAGA).

The main argument made was about the evidence, or lack of it, that the new controls have had an effect since the data does not show what weapons were used in what crimes.

Specifically, the crime statistics made public by the police do not show whether the guns used in most-gun related crimes are legal or illegal under the new legislation.

Therefore, SAGA spokesman Martin Hood told Africa Check: “There is no way a linkage can be formed between the implementation of the Firearms Control Act and its relationship to any specific crime.”

Gun-related crime has fallen

What all sides do accept is that the police crime statistics do show a clear downward trend in gun-related crime since the Act came into effect.

Between 2004/5, when the controls were introduced, and 2011/12, gun-related crimes have decreased by 21.2%, the statistics show.

However, as the gun owners point out, the statistics do not show sufficiently detailed data of gun and other crimes to be able to conclude, from this alone, that the gun control Act was responsible for this change .

Crime overall has fallen over the same period and, from the published statistics, it could appear that all that has happened with gun crime is that it has followed the broader pattern.

Cause of death data does back the police claim

This seems plausible. However, research forwarded to Africa Check after the first publication of this report on 15 December, does appear to confirm that gun crime has fallen more sharply than knife and other types of violent crime.

And since knife crime and other violent crimes are affected by many of the same other factors as gun crime and have not fallen to the same degree, the research does suggest that the Act has indeed, at least helped reduce gun crime.

The research, conducted by Dr Naeemah Abrahams and others at the Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, found that the use of guns as a cause of non-natural death of women almost halved between 1999 and 2009 (after the Act was drawn up and while it was introduced), while  deaths from other means including stabbing and blunt injuries barely changed. This is shown in the below graph.

At the same time, a study of mortuary data shows that while 29 percent of non-natural deaths across South Africa were due to firearms in 2002, this dropped to 10.8 percent in 2008, while deaths from stab wounds and transport accidents remained broadly stable during this time.

‘Indications’ of the Act’s effect

As Institute for Security Studies researcher, Lauren Tracey, told Africa Check the police data lacks the level of detail required to enable researchers to confirm the effect of the Act, and means that some degree of speculation is necessary.

Nevertheless, she said: “There is some indication that these developments have contributed to reductions in firearm loss and theft from private citizens, as well as in firearm homicide.”

“The fact that the firearms issue has been in the mainstream media and that South Africans are aware of the threat posed by illegal firearms may be the most important contributor to the reduction because it increases the probability of criminals being reported for possession of illegal firearms before crimes are committed,” she added.


As said in the initial version of this report, the absence of detail in the official crime statistics makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the impact of the Firearms Control Act on gun crime.

However, other research, including the research quoted here that is drawn from mortuary statistics and looking at changes in cause of death, does back the police claim that the gun control act has helped reduce gun crime.

If you know of further evidence that shows more information – either way – please get in touch and let us know.

Edited by Ruth Becker and Peter Cunliffe-Jones

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Comment on this report

Comments 7
  1. By Falkis

    Perhaps the full set of data shows this information but the graph on causes of death is labelled as showing percentage of deaths caused by the each of the three methods; it doesn’t say anything about the rate. Also if the percentage of deaths by guns dropped while the percentage of knife or blunt deaths stayed the same, some other method of murder must have risen in prevalence.

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  2. By Michael Kuske

    Hard to believe a serious journalist could be so far off on understanding the underlying numbers. That 21.2% dip in firearms/ammunition crime recorded between 2003/04-2011/12 is not a reduction of crime committed with a firearm, it is only the reduction in the number firearms/ammunition crimes resultant from police actions or as defined: “Crimes dependant on police action for detection are categorised as serious crime but excluded as these crimes may increase as a result of police action.” It is only the reduction of rate at which the police in the course of another investigation realize that a firearms offense has taken place. This has nothing to do with the rate of crimes committed with firearms.

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  3. By Zoo

    The study on the mortuary data is reported in a funamentally misleading way. All it did was analyze the cause of death of women alone, and in certain selected mortuaries.

    Many of the corpses could not actually provide a cause of death due to decomposition. The conclusion drawn by Abrahams on the effectiveness of the Firearms Control Act is literally drawn out of thin air (she is a board member of Gun Free SA, a fact which needs to be taken account of). I doubt the author read the study, if so, this would not be published as an authoritative work.

    In any event, that study cannot possibly back the claim that it covers all deaths in South Africa, since that was never its purpose.

    Also, after the implementation of the Act in 2004/2005, murders were higher in 2005/2006, in the next 5 years domestic and business robbery soared by about 240% and 480% respectively – clearly criminals have far less fear of a disarmed, or perceived to be disarmed, society.

    The author needs to consult a bit more widely, I suggest contacting Gun Owners of South Africa as they have more information than SAGA.

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  4. By bcs

    These graphs are meaningless. A murderer shot dead by a policeman has the same weight as a cashier shot dead by a robber. Just because somebody was shot, does not mean the act was criminal in nature. I personally would applaud a firearm-caused death if the case in question was a pensioner shooting dead an armed housebreaker. The “researchers” are coming to unjustified conclusions.

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  5. By MT

    There are more licensed guns now in private hands than there were 10 years ago. What the Firearms Control Act did, is to make it more difficult for a criminal to obtain a licensed firearm, through the background and security checks known as competency procedure.

    In other words, if a person is found to be competent, then it is irrelevant how many guns he or she own, or how many law abiding citizens are provided with licenses for those firearms in total.

    The results seems to rather prove that more law abiding citizens were able to protect themselves with firearms if need be. If this would be taken away, it will be a free for all for all criminals, as they would know that there will be no resistance possible to their evil deeds. This country would not last a month if that will ever be allowed.

    There is no way that this so called report can be allowed to be interpreted to make a case out for the disarmament of law abiding citizens, leaving them at the defenseless mercy of criminals who have no respect for the law or any particular act in any event.

    The problem is crime. To fight crime you start with the basics first, i.e. proper basic police work. Then from there on you go to more advanced police work.

    More acts aimed at stringer measures for those who are already doing everything they can to stick to the law, will have not cause any improvement in your crime statistics. You are barking up the wrong tree. Rather man up and go and catch the criminals. Leave the law abiding people alone.

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  6. By Zoo

    One more thing, Africa Check must be wary of falling into the linguistic trap in this debate.

    The studies which purport to support gun control reduce their focus to “gun deaths” or “gun violence”. “Gun deaths” often include suicide which is a complex phenomenon on its own and should be excluded anyway.

    What this does is distract the debate from the real problem. The real problem is murder, rape, robbery and so on. Whether someone is shot dead or stabbed it doesn’t matter, what matters is that they were murdered. However, by playing on linguistics false victories are claimed by the gun control lobby (vastly more resourced and funded than the gun lobby).

    This is an example: Country A has 10/100 000 murders. Of the 10/100 000, 7/100 000 are shot and 3/100 000 are killed by other means. A gun ban is enacted and the “gun deaths” reduce to 5/100 000 and a great victory is claimed. However, the overall murder rate climbs to 14/100 000 and the gun lobby claims a great failure.

    Please be careful in this debate that you know what is being talked about and that its apples and apples not apples and pears.

    Notably, this slight of hand is vastly more common in gun control studies – a sure sign their claims demand greater scrutiny.

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  7. By L Churr

    I attempted to access the research conducted by Dr Naeemah Abrahams and others at the Medical Research Council’s Gender and Health Research Unit, found that the use of guns as a cause of non-natural death of women almost halved between 1999 and 2009

    Why am I forbidden to access the research?

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