Gun culture and gun sanity in Pistorius' South Africa

South African Olympic athlete Oscar Pistorius and Reeva Steenkamp at an awards ceremony, in Johannesburg, South Africa. Pistorius was taken into custody and expected to appear in court Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013, after Steenkamp was shot dead at his home in South Africa's capital, Pretoria. (AP Photo/Lucky Nxumalo-Citypress)

I'm not going to weigh in on the more lurid aspects of the murder allegedly committed by Olympic "bladerunner" Oscar Pistorius -- it's obviously a horrific tragedy and condolences go out to the family and loved ones of the victim, Reeva Steenkam.

But look, obviously folks are going to look at such a high-profile international murder on the context of the debate that we're having here in the United States over legislation to reduce the gun violence that is epidemic here.

Because advocates for gun sanity frequently make the argument -- especially after a mass killing like the Sandy Hook Elementary School -- that the gun problem is a uniquely American one. And so anytime we see violence committed by a gun somwhere else, the folks who like to call themselves "gun rights advocates" will say something along the lines of...see. If it happens in South Africa, or Norway or wherever, so that's proof that gun control doesn't work anywhere.

So here's three relevant things:

1) Just for background, Oscar Pistorius is a man who loves his guns:

Pistorius enjoyed target shooting with his pistol and an online advertisement featuring him for Nike read: "I am a bullet in the chamber." An article in January 2012 in The New York Times Magazine described him talking about how he pulled a pistol to search his home when his alarm went off the night before an interview. At Pistorius' suggestion, he and the journalist went to a nearby target range where they fired at targets with a 9 mm pistol. At one point, Pistorius told the writer: "If you practiced, I think you could be pretty deadly."

Asked how often he went target shooting, Pistorius replied: "Just sometimes when I can't sleep."

2) Like the United States, South Africa is a nation that has had a tortured history with race. Like the United States, South Africa has a "gun culture."

By some estimates, up to six million South African civilians own guns – about 12 per cent of the population. Many of those weapons are illegally owned. And of the legal guns, most are justified as a tool for self-defence.

It’s true that South Africa has a high rate of violent crime. But the fear of crime can verge into paranoia. Weapons are everywhere, and each gun justifies another gun.

South African airports and casinos have prominent signs directing people to storage rooms to deposit their weapons. Criminals assume that their victims have guns. When they break into a house, their first step is to search for the owner’s gun.

Guns are widely used in the most common crimes here: they are used in 77 per cent of house robberies and 87 per cent of business robberies, and they are the cause of death in more than half of all murders, reports say.

3) So if South Africa is such a violent place, why don't they pass laws to prevent gun violence.

They have.

In fact, South Africa might provide some of the strongest evidence that gun control can make a difference. Tougher limits on gun ownership took effect in 2004, and since then the number of gun-related crimes has dropped by 21 per cent.

And this decrease is not merely because of a general decline in crime in South Africa. One study of female victims, by the country’s Medical Research Council, found that gun-related deaths had dropped by nearly half from 1999 to 2009, while other causes of violent death were virtually unchanged.

That's interesting, isn't it? In 2004, the very year that America allowed the ban on assault weapons to lapse, South Africa passed a gun-sanity measure that has been very successful. There is no reason why we cannot emulate them. None.

Just like in the United States, there are still millions of guns in circulation in South Africa. Gun-violence laws won't stop every gun murder there...and they won't here. But while you're reading today about the death of Reeva Steenkan, remember this: There are hundreds of South Africans whose names did not make the newspaper, because they were NOT killed by a gun. Because South Africa's political leaders did something...and saved lives.

They did it. We can do this. 

Oh, and one more thing. Don't go looking for that Nike "I am a bullet in the chamber" ad. They pulled it this morning.