Oscar Pistorius, Guns & Bad Thinking

The facts aren't in, but here's what we know:


The internationally renowned athlete, Oscar Pistorius, was part of a violent shooting at his home, resulting in the death of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. Whether Pistorius shot her at all, or whether he shot her out of anger, or whether he planned it, or whether it was through a door, or six times or four times, is not known to us.

The facts aren't in, but here's what we assert:

He’s guilty, he's innocent, guns should not be in any home, more guns will protect us, she was so beautiful she shouldn't have died, he betrayed all of us.

From the bizarre focus on her beauty and that the shooting occured on Valentine’s Day, to unfounded – though possibly true – assertions of his guilt, many of us using social media witnessed a live-feed of emotion and outrage.

Condemning him, protecting him, calling him guilty or innocent. The gun debate was fired up, as I guessed it would and in the way I imagined.

Justified disgust at using Steenkamp's bikini photos, instead of less sexualised ones, also ignited - rightfully - what was otherwise a burning coal of concern about her career.

News and Failure

The facts aren't in. But we've already failed.

We failed because we'd rather play guessing games than wait for facts. We failed because waiting for facts from reputable sources, like court lawyers, is boring and static, therefore anathema to our current form of news consumption – the intravenous drip of data we call rolling 24-hour news, which constantly reaches for brevity and thereby sacrifices clarity.

With waiting for facts, there’s nothing to Tweet about; there’s nothing to raise our digital torches at.

We know a gun went off and she died. So let’s talk about guns, let’s talk about violence, let’s talk about violence in this violent country. The problem is talking often accomplishes little with such a heated topic, particularly during a time when many are reeling from a gunshot they didn't even hear.

Ignition for the Debate

Of course, the gun debate is an important one – which I’ve raised several times.

Here in South Africa, there was the usual unwillingness to give ground from either “side”: all gun owners are equally reactionary, untrained, violent; people against guns are all equally unthinking, closed-minded, idealistic. This is not only bad thinking but also obviously wrong: the untrained criminal grabbing a gun to fire off at police is not an equal shooter to a well-trained farmer protecting his family from the same criminal. Neither is the farmer the same as the man who killed Bin Laden.

For many what matters isn’t firearms, but proper training; what matters is that a gun should not be available to anyone during an intense argument, someone prone to violence and abuse. Whether or not you “like” guns, or think people should be legally aloud to own them at all, at least we can all agree on these views.

For some of us, if these same tools can disengage violent situations with intruders and criminals, particularly if these tools can protect smaller, weaker people (like myself) or those often the target of severe attacks (like women), then we should not be so quick to dismiss these tools.

We shouldn’t want to ban all guns from homes forever, because, again, we’d be painting a broad spectrum of both the tools and tool-users with the same brush. But I’ve previously outlined why I’m not easily persuaded against guns, primarily because, as Sam Harris pointed out, it means violent situations are determined by aspects like physical strength, size and so on.

The solution

I don’t know what the solution is. I don’t know whether Pistorius’ situation would’ve resulted in Steenkamp’s death if a gun was there.

I do know that a gun increases the risk of deaths arising in the same house it’s kept in. I know that merely owning a gun increases the chances an owner will reach for it, only to get shot, where he might otherwise be alive because he’d be more complacent.  Furthermore, more gun deaths only seems to result in more gun acquisition – often into the hands of the untrained. Bigger fences, more security, till the fences resemble prisons – a theme so common, Nobel Prize-winning South African writer Nadine Gordimer made this auto-imprisonment a central theme of her works.

As Geoff York writes in the Globe & Mail:

Fear of guns is why South Africa’s middle classes are hidden behind three-metre-high electrified fences and walls, in compounds with motion detectors and metal-barred doors. They hire security companies with gun-toting guards, who promise “immediate armed response” to every activated alarm.

Guns then are merely an extension of this need for security, despite the security concerns they raise themselves.

I know this. But I also don’t think the right reaction is to demand guns removed just because a famous athlete kills someone with it (allegedly) – what should be reduced or removed are bad gun owners (like Pistorius, according to police). We should want better training, we should want a world where legally owning a gun is a constant worry, requiring constant education and testing: from psychological to accuracy.

Ideally, we would want a world where no one needs to learn how to defend herself: but such a world is not ours. Ours is complicated, problematic, resulting in the deaths of the evil and the good alike. To defend most positions based on assertion, dogma, party-slogans – whether for or against something – is therefore an insult to this recognition. Our world is complicated.

The facts aren’t in. They’ll never be in. But we must think clearly, reasonably with the little we currently have, so our future decisions aren’t ones we come to later regret.

Ms Steenkamp is dead, but we ought not to let our united and justified outrage over this become a catalyst for tearing each other apart -- on what is, indeed, a very important and ongoing debate.

Image Credit: Jim Thurston / Flickr (source)

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