Bias-driven anti-firearm research present in GFSA advocacy.
By Wikus Erasmus
The popular press has been inundated of late with articles punting firearm control legislation, most recently those published by Dr Matzopoulos from Gun Free South Africa. The current discourse seems determined to create a broadly negative view towards legal and responsible firearm ownership. This negative narrative is being propounded by a specific flavour of academic research.
The unlikely hypothesis that firearm control legislation is effective should be supported by a significant increase in legal firearm licence holders being arrested and prosecuted for murder. This is obviously not the case.
As it stands, there are various problems with Dr. Matzopoulos’ research indicate that a major anti-firearm bias is at play. Dr. Matzopoulos’ research data combines legal lawful interventions together with criminal drug related cases. Therefore legal firearm related interventions are equivocated with illegal uses which is a fallacy as the context between the two interventions differ greatly and legal firearm use is recognised by the South African legal system.
The data used to support Matzopoulos’ views was from extracted from 2000 to 2005. The Firearms Control Act (FCA) no. 60 of 2000 was only promulgated in July 2004. An act cannot have a retroactive impact especially since no part of the act had been implemented prior to 2004 and any changes in firearm related incidents prior to this date cannot be related to the implementation of the Act.
The research sample only considered one city (Johannesburg), in one ethnic group (African males), on one night of the week (a Saturday). This is obviously not representative of the South African population. Therefore the conclusions cannot be extrapolated beyond the narrow characteristics of the sample.
The validity of these conclusions must be questioned due to flawed research design and their intended use as advocacy rather than academic enquiry. The main authors in these materials are Dr. Van As from the Children’s Red Cross hospital, Dr. Matzopoulos from the Medical Research Council (MRC), Mr. Lamb from the Safety and Violence Initiative (SaVI) and Mrs Kirsten from Gun Free South Africa. All have strong ties to the GFSA board and the success of their advocacy has implications for further funding.
Dr. Van As has also published articles in academic journals in which he thanks Mrs. Kirsten and by referencing her book, “A Nation without guns?” as a major source of information on violence. Mrs Kirsten in turn uses Matzopoulos’ publications as her major source. It was a surprise for co-workers of Matzopoulos at the Medical Research Council (MRC), to learn that he is a dedicated and committed board member of GFSA. A clear conflict of interest exists in this case and is a source of bias. A further example of this bias is in the use of the term “denialists” in Matzopoulos’s article. Such terms do not have a place in serious academic literature.
An invalid comparison is frequently drawn between the firearms control debate in the United States of America and South Africa. South Africa has had more stringent firearm control legislation for decades and this has been significantly more restrictive than the USA. The prevalence of firearm fatalities can also not be compared and the patterns of these fatalities differ materially too. These individuals have confused the roles of unbiased researchers with advocates of a particular view and imported it into a different context in South Africa.
The approach of beginning a study with a conclusion inevitably leads to inflation of Type 1 errors that exaggerate conclusions based on uncontrolled biases. This is done when data is deliberately interpreted in such a way as to support the conclusions in the mind of the researcher. When passionate advocates meet objective research, does the honest broker stand a chance?
Academic research has to be valid and follow the scientific process to be useful. The scientific process is based on the rules of (i) empirical evidence, (ii) objectivity, (iii) control, (iv) predictability, (v) hypotheses derived from theory and (vi) replication or falsifiability. It is clear that multiple rules of scientific research have been broken in this paper and the results cannot be valid and the conclusions drawn by the authors are not supported as a consequence.
A further flaw in this research is that external variables are ignored. The researchers chose to ignore that the murder rate in South Africa has been in decline since the 1990’s. Other external factors must have been at play before the FCA was conceived and the researchers do not address this downward trend by confining themselves to a carefully chosen period of time. Furthermore, the murder rate increased around 2010 after a backlog of legal firearm licenses were issued. This shows the lack of correlation between gun control and crime and makes it clear that other factors really influence murder rates rather than legal gun ownership.
The question remains, why do the researchers ignore any evidence that does not support their views? There are no alternative hypotheses possible in the minds of the researchers. A different team of researchers analysing the same data would quite probably come to different conclusions.
In conclusion, the research presented by the anti-firearm advocacy groups supports a narrative that is not supported by scientifically robust research but by a political worldview. This is to the detriment of South Africa’s most law abiding sector of society – legal firearm owners. South African firearm owners have undergone stringent background checks and endured waiting periods of around 6 months and more before collecting their firearms.
It is far easier to illegally acquire firearms than legally. The focus those truly concerned about the safety of the population, should be on illegal activities and the social causes of crime. Instead, anti-firearm advocacy groups continue to try to prevent law-abiding citizens from effectively protecting their loved ones and themselves. This is simply a wrongheaded approach. This is even extended to GFSA calling for the police to be disarmed of their most effective tools in the face of extremely violent criminals. There will only be one winner. And it will not be the peace loving citizens of South Africa.
Wikus Erasmus is an Independent Researcher at the University of Johannesburg.