No research backs widely shared statistic about gun ownership risk in South Africa

Comments 4


You are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than be able to use it successfully in self-defence.

Source: Gun Safe Cities, July 2019



Explainer: There is no recent, reliable data on the topic.

  • A South African charity claimed that you are “four times more likely to have your gun used against you” than be able to use it against your attacker.
  • The statistic is often linked to research published in 1999 and 2000. But the study’s author says his research doesn’t support the claim.
  • There is not enough up-to-date data on firearm ownership and violence in South Africa to support or disprove the claim.

An awareness campaign in South Africa about the dangers of owning a firearm relies on an often-used claim.

“From home invasions to hijackings and muggings, many South Africans own a gun out of fear for falling victim to violent crime,” reads the introduction of a press release by the organisation Gun Safe Cities. But living in a house with a gun increases your odds of harm, it claims.

“Research in South Africa shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence.”    

The claim has also appeared in publications by the non-profit organisation Gun Free South Africa. It’s been published on South African sites News24, Brand South Africa, Safer Spaces and IOL in the last couple of years.

Where does this statistic come from? And is it true today? Africa Check went down the rabbit hole.

‘Plenty of research freely available’

There’s little information online about Gun Safe Cities, but it was described as a “charity” by John Davenport. He is the chief creative officer of Havas South Africa, the ad agency that Gun Safe Cities partnered with for the awareness campaign.   

Davenport told Africa Check “there is plenty of research freely available around the ‘four times’ statistic from a number of countries including South Africa”. But he is yet to respond to queries about the specific research they relied on. (Note: We will update this report should he do so.

Claim linked to 1999 study

Lizette Lancaster manages the Crime Hub, a source for statistics on crime and safety in South Africa, at the Institute for Security Studies. She told Africa Check the “frequently quoted” statistic comes from studies published by author and crime expert Antony Altbeker in 1999 and 2000.   

Gun Free South Africa, who includes the statistic in their online toolkit, also confirmed that Altbeker was their source. 

We contacted Altbeker. “This is the piece of research that has generated the most reruns of any work I ever did,” he said. 

Altbeker referred us to a chapter he wrote in a 2003 book called Justice Gained? Crime and Crime Control in South Africa’s Transition. It sets out the “validity” of his studies and “what can and cannot be claimed about it”, he said.

‘A different claim altogether’

In the first study, Altbeker reviewed 602 police dockets opened for gun-related crimes in the Johannesburg suburbs of Alexandra and Bramley that were reported during the first three months of 1997. 

In 8% of the cases, the victims were armed. And in those cases, nearly 80% of victims lost their guns to their attackers without being able to defend themselves. 

The study also found that those who used their own gun to defend themselves were “four times more likely to have been fired upon by their attackers”.   

This finding is therefore different to the claim made by Gun Safe Cities – that you are “four times more likely to have your gun used against you than be able to use it successfully in self-defence”.

“My study does not support that claim,” Altbeker told Africa Check. “And whatever the limitations of my study, it’s got nothing to do with the gun being used against you, that’s a different claim altogether.”

Altbeker revisited the question of victims’ ability to defend themselves in a second study in 2000. But again, “data quality issues”, specifically the possibility that people who lost their guns might have lied to avoid a charge of negligence, meant it was impossible to draw clear conclusions.

Another reason, Altbeker noted in Justice Gained?, is that many who scared off their attackers would not have reported the case to the police.

Study too localised for broad conclusions

Dr Samara McPhedran is the deputy director of the Violence Research and Prevention Program at Griffith University in Australia. She specialises in the study of firearm violence and gun policy. 

McPhedran told Africa Check she is always cautious when using a study that is more than 20 years old. “Typically, patterns of firearm violence change over time, so it is important to work with up to date information whenever possible.”  

And rates of firearm violence and misuse also tend to vary in different places, so it is important to avoid generalisations based on a geographically localised study, she said.

“What may be true of one city, for example, may not be the case in another. The same applies to suburbs. Even within one province, different areas can have very different experiences.” 

Firearm law specialist Martin Hood of MJ Hood and Associates Attorneys in Johannesburg told Africa Check that Altbeker’s study was based on police dockets before the cases had gone to trial, so the contents “were not necessarily tested to determine factual correctness”.  

No recent studies available

“I always think that studies like this suggest the need for more research,” Prof Jonathan Metzl, director of the Center for Medicine, Health, and Society at Vanderbilt University in the US, told Africa Check. 

However, there are “no large databases like we have for all other kinds of injury and death”, said Metzl.

Richard Matzopoulos, a specialist scientist at the South African Medical Research Council’s Burden of Disease Research Unit, told Africa Check he was “not aware of more recent studies” about armed victims’ ability to defend themselves. Naeemah Abrahams from the council’s Gender and Health Research Unit said she also had not seen research on ownership and risk within homes from South African studies. 

Conclusion: No recent, reliable data on the risks facing gun owners

Gun Safe Cities, a South African charity, claimed that “research in South Africa shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence.”    

The statistic is often attributed to South African studies published in 1999 and 2000. But the study’s author says his research does not support the charity’s claim. 

Various experts told Africa Check the survey is too old and too inconclusive to make any claims about the risks of owning a gun in South Africa today. 

There is no recent, reliable data on the topic. We therefore rate the claim unproven.

Further reading:

CORRECTION: A previous version of this report referred to Gun Safe Cities as Gun Free Cities. We have corrected this and apologise for the error.

© Copyright Africa Check 2020. Read our republishing guidelines. You may reproduce this piece or content from it for the purpose of reporting and/or discussing news and current events. This is subject to: Crediting Africa Check in the byline, keeping all hyperlinks to the sources used and adding this sentence at the end of your publication: “This report was written by Africa Check, a non-partisan fact-checking organisation. View the original piece on their website", with a link back to this page.

Comment on this report

Comments 4
  1. By Warren Gordon

    If your sample is men between the ages of 19 and 20 that drown in the ocean, and that is all that you look at. Then statistically speaking 100% of men between the ages of 19 and 20 drown in the ocean.

    Stats like the ones mentioned above specifically looked at a sample group that was so specific and small that it excluded all other possibilities ultimately resulting in a very skewed result. So much so the author of the paper has said as much.

    Sadly there are a number of organisations that have wrongly used the paper as proof positive that a firearm in the house makes you four times more likely to have it used against you, and even being told they are incorrect, they still spread the lie. Recently a poll run by one of these organisations on twitter showed that an overwhelming number of people felt safer in the house with their partner owning a gun. Own goal scored!

    Reply Report comment
  2. By Peter Moss

    GFSA is registered as a ADVOCACY organisation. You can translate that to its true meaning, a PROPAGANDA organisation.

    HAVAS should hang their he4ads in shame and issue an apology to the people of South Africa they have lied to. It would have taken less than a few minutes to have checked what they claimed. The research has been refuted and debunked many time and Antony Altbecker himself told Adel Kirsten the research was not representative of firearm ownership. Their is no research GFSA have ever presented that ha not been should to be fatally flawed.

    Expecting research to prove what is impossible can have only one result, faked, irrelevant and massaged statistics. First it is a physical impossibility that guns can make, force or control people into committing any act against their will. Thus for gun control cause and effect does not exist. Second disarming the victims of crime to make them safer is an oxymoron.

    The two greatest danger the pubic face besides government is criminals and gun control.

    Reply Report comment
  3. By Trevor Bailey

    The misquoted statistic is about the safety of owning a gun for self defence. If one in four gun owners lose their guns in the event of a confrontation and those that get to use them are four times more likely to be shot at then it is still saying that having a gun puts you at increased risk. Thats the bottom line however you try to slice and dice.
    To quote directly….
    “nearly 80% of victims lost their guns to their attackers without being able to defend themselves. The study also found that those who used their own gun to defend themselves were “four times more likely to have been fired upon by their attackers”.”

    Reply Report comment
  4. By Trevor Bailey

    How long does it take to moderate a comment?

    You can reply to my email address if you wish to discuss/clarify, but simply blocking my comment suggests significant bias on your side.

    Reply Report comment

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