South Africa

DAILY MAVERICK 168: Firearms Control Amendment Bill: The dark side of the war of words over proposed gun regulations

Extremist pro-gun lobbyists have directed their fury at Gun Free South Africa, the anti-gun NGO they believe played a key role in writing the controversial Firearms Control Amendment Bill. Then there’s cartoonist Jeremy Nell, aka Jerm.

Part One: Up in arms

The Firearms Control Amendment Bill has sparked a war of words between pro-gun lobbyists and those in support of the legislation aimed at curbing gun violence.

The bill has been lambasted by one side and praised by the other for removing the “self-defence” clause as a reason to lawfully own a weapon.

Section 1.2 of the bill reads: “In order to address the reduction of gun deaths and gun violence, firearm licences for self-defence purposes will not be permitted.”

The latest draft legislation replaces the Firearms Control Amendment Bill submitted to Cabinet in February 2015.

The DA was infuriated by the proposed amendment, launching a petition opposing the bill. The petition had 45,000 signatures by 30 May.

In a press statement, Andrew Whit­field, the DA spokesperson on police, called it an “absurd and baseless piece of legislation” that would remove South Africans’ last line of defence against violent crime.

“The bill is merely aiming to disarm law-abiding citizens. This is reckless and leaves civilians with their hands tied behind their backs when facing criminals.”

He went on to criticise the R3.8-billion cut to the SA Police Service’s visible policing budget whereas VIP protection has been increased by R26-million.

“This is the clearest demonstration that the ANC doesn’t care about the safety of ordinary South Africans,” he said.

Two weeks ago, the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service released the bill for public comment. By 7 June, the police ministry had received more than 85,000 submissions.

Delivering the police’s budget vote speech for 2021/22, Police Minister Bheki Cele said the biggest contributor to murder in South Africa was the use of firearms.

Statistics show that 23 people are shot and killed in South Africa daily.

In a statement expressing support for the draft legislation, Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) – one of the main proponents for the bill – quoted research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicating that a gun in the home increases the risk of murder, suicide, death or injury from an unintentional shooting.

“Moreover, guns in the home are targeted by robbers, with a comprehensive study in South Africa confirming that civilian gun owners are the biggest source of lost and stolen guns.” But the pro-gun lobby is adamant that the bill is a violation of the “right” to gun ownership.

A founding member of GFSA, Adele Kirsten, said a right to bear arms does not exist in the Constitution. Cele has been quoted as saying gun ownership is a “privilege” made possible by the Firearms Control Act.

For Kirsten, restricting gun ownership is a “bold vision” aimed at reducing violence in our society.

Yet Gideon Joubert of Gun Owners South Africa (Gosa) says the focus should not be on eradicating guns, but rather on fixing our failing police service.

Apart from slow response times, Joubert said the smuggling of guns from police officers to criminals is part of the issue.

Daily Maverick recently reported that in the Western Cape alone, between 2010 and 2016, firearms smuggled from police officers to gangsters had been used in 1,666 murders and 1,403 attempted murders.

“In a country as violent as ours, it’s an absolute necessity that good, law-abiding citizens can protect themselves against that violence.”

Apart from self-defence, the bill also places limitations on the number of firearm licences an occasional hunter or sport-shooter can hold.

According to Joubert, sport-shooting could be “decimated” by the restrictions. Guns undergo considerable wear and tear and the turnaround time to acquire a new gun licence is too long, he says.

GFSA are in support of the bill’s provisions to combat gender-based violence. It is proposed that the Registrar suspend firearm licences from persons with an offence under the Domestic Violence Act or the Protection of Harassment Act.

More women have joined Gosa and are opting to carry weapons for their own protection. “They strongly feel they have been failed by all mechanisms of policing,” said Joubert.

Although healthy debate has ensued over the firearms bill, a dark side of the conversation has emerged. GFSA approached Daily Maverick with evidence of violent threats levelled against the group from extremist pro-gun lobbyists.

Part Two: ‘Waste of white skin’

According to Kirsten, the primary weapons being used against GFSA are threats and disinformation to discredit the organisation.

Abusive calls and emails, heavy breathing over the phone, as well as vitriolic and misogynistic messages on social media have become the order of the day for the women at GFSA.

One example is an email shared with Daily Maverick that read: “Through your own stupidity and thoughtlessness you have started an absolute war so you better be prepared to finish it – if not then I strongly recommend suicide. On behalf of all the innocent and law-abiding gun owners in SA whom you have now turned into criminals, I wish you the most horrific death imaginable! F*** You B****!!”

The sender had concealed their identity and went by “LH”.

A post shared on Telegram group Jerm Warfare Battleground, owned by controversial cartoonist Jeremy Nell, levelled the accusation against GFSA executive director Felicity Harrison that she essentially wrote the bill.

The post stated: “Felicity Harrison is the person who dictated the content of the firearm legislation to the Civilian Secretariat for Police.”

When contacted by Daily Maverick about the post, Nell denied having intentionally shared it.

“If I did, it might have just simply been an error but I can’t remember that and I have no idea who wrote the bill,” he said.

Harrison rebuffed the allegations, stating she had never met with any legal advisors, the ministry or the secretariat involved. “I also do not have the kind of power or influence that this group of people claim that I have.”

A reverse image search on the post shows it was not shared before May 29 when it appeared on the Jerm Warfare group. This does not necessarily indicate that this is where the post originated.

An Afrikaner nationalist Facebook page called Boere Krisis Aksie shared the allegations, and the comments were brutal. Annette Scholtz said “her family first…”; Chris Jonk called Harrison a “waste of white skin”; and Robert Rob said, “Maybe her loved ones must be raped and murdered before the truth dawns on her!”

The post also links GFSA to the Open Society Foundation chaired by billionaire George Soros.

Soros has been the focus of a conspiracy theory alleging he and his foundation are trying to disarm citizens in the US and now South Africa.

In response, Harrison said: “While Gun Free South Africa has in the past received funding from Open Society and Gun Free is very grateful to the support they have given, it is no longer receiving any funding from them.”

She said, however, that the organisation does “stand in solidarity with Open Society in the work that they are trying to do”.

Nell, who has been public and unequivocal in his contempt for the bill, said it was “unfortunate” that threats were being made towards GFSA, but the situation was “ironic”.

Writer Christopher McMichael described Nell, who writes under the pen name Jerm, as “a raging bundle of Donald Trump-style reactionary derangement yet to meet a dubious conspiracy theory or white supremacist dog whistle he doesn’t like”.

On his website and podcast platform Jerm Warfare, Nell describes the world as “an unsafe space for liberal dogma, corrupt power, and soulless modernity”.

This ideology is reflected in many of his cartoons, which express Covid-19 denialism, are anti-vaxxer, are against the Black Lives Matter movement, and deny the existence of the climate crisis.

Daily Maverick ‘s Rebecca Davis recently fact-checked claims made by Nell in a BizNews article on the leaked Anthony Fauci emails and found that the majority of Nell’s claims were false.

In January last year, Nell was banned from Facebook after Helen Zille shared one of his offending cartoons.

Jerm is also no longer on Twitter, but has retreated to Telegram, where his group Jerm Warfare Battleground has attracted more than 5,500 subscribers, among them what seems to be a large cohort of extreme pro-gun lobbyists.

“This is the face of gun owners that is not visible to the general public,” said Kirsten.

“When you see the vitriol and you see that these people also own guns, it reinforces for us the view that most people shouldn’t have guns because of this kind of volatility, lack of impulse control and rage.”

The bill is open for public comment until 4 July 2021. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.

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