Written by Gideon Joubert
As far as constitutions go, South Africans have a fairly good one. Our Bill of Rights is rather extensive, and it is focused on human dignity, freedom, and equality.
Now, the Constitution (and the Bill of Rights) do not grant you any rights. Your Right to Life, for example, is a natural right. It is inalienable and universal. The Constitution merely enshrines your natural rights. Understanding this is important: the government does not grant you rights. And because the government cannot grant you rights, the government also cannot take them away. The Constitution therefore exists to protect your natural rights from erosion and abuse.
I am going to run through a few of our constitutional rights as a basic example.
Firstly, everyone has the right to life. Secondly, everyone has the right to freedom and security of person. This includes (among others) the right to not be arbitrarily deprived of freedom, be free from all forms of violence, not be tortured in any way, and to have security and control over their body. Thirdly, everyone has the right to property.
As you may have noticed, many of our constitutional rights complement each other. It is not coincidental that when you become a victim of crime, several of your constitutional rights are violated in the process.
If a criminal steals from you, they are violating your right to property. If they threaten, assault, or rape you during the robbery, they are violating your right to freedom and security of person. Should such assault lead to your death, the murderer has violated your right to life.
Obviously, even though the Constitution enshrines many civil rights, it does not prevent them from being infringed upon. Thousands upon thousands of citizens are murdered, raped, robbed, and kidnapped every year. No rapist, robber, or murderer has ever been dissuaded by their victims asking them to stop defying their constitutional rights. We all know that criminals do not work this way. Laws, even the Constitution and Bill of Rights, cannot stop criminals committing crimes.
This leaves South Africans with a bit of a conundrum – we have all these wonderful rights, but they are repeatedly infringed. The cold and harsh reality is that all our rights are completely meaningless if they cannot be exercised. They certainly sound good and noble. But if criminals and corrupt government officials forcibly defy them as a matter of course, then what is the point of it all?
Fortunately for the law-abiding among us, this issue is a double-edged sword.
If force is used to violate our rights, then force can in turn be used to defend them. If a rapist uses a gun to threaten his intended victim, but she then uses her own firearm to defend herself, she has successfully prevented the criminal violation of her rights. Such defence is entirely legal and in accordance with our Constitution. An innocent person may use whatever force is necessary and available to stop a life threatening attack on themselves or another innocent third party.
This includes the judicious use of lethal force.
Firearms are the best tools available with which to defend your right to life: They can be safely and effectively used without excessive amounts of training. They project lethal force accurately and reliably. And they are legal and reasonably affordable for law-abiding citizens to own. There are numerous reported cases annually of legally-armed South Africans defending innocent life by use of their firearms.
South Africans unfortunately do not have a Right to Keep and Bear Arms. Firearm ownership is treated as a privilege and not a right. There is an ongoing debate within society regarding how liberal or restrictive our firearm laws should be. The fact that our gun laws have no impact on criminals, and that many countries (like Brazil, Russia, and the Czech Republic) have recently liberalised their gun laws, is the topic of another discussion entirely.
That being said, we cannot ignore the importance of gun rights in the context of our other constitutional rights.
Firearms are the greatest force-equaliser commonly available – they grant a frail 80-year-old woman the ability to fend off a strong young man who seeks to do her harm. When we consider how effective they are for self-defence in the hands of trained citizens, we must acknowledge that excessive and meaningless restrictions on their ownership does far more harm to society than good. For example, having law-abiding and responsible citizens wait more than 6 months to legally obtain a firearm is completely atrocious.
Such arbitrary and nonsensical restrictions to firearm ownership rights serve to erode the constitutional rights of our citizenry. If you qualify to legally own a firearm, but the government through their own ineptitude and incompetence prevents you from doing so, they are infringing on your ability to defend your right to life with the best tool available. Of course the same restrictions do not apply to criminals, because they live outside the boundaries of the law.
Because of this, South Africa is at present the eight most murderous nation on earth. Our rates of violent crime, including rape and robbery with aggravating circumstances, are among the worst in there world. We have the constitutional right to life, right to freedom and security of person, and right to property. But our rights are violated to a grotesque extent every single day.
You see, we can have the most wonderful Constitution and Bill of Rights in the whole world. We can enshrine a whole swathe of natural rights within it. And we can wax lyrical about how superior and liberal our societal values are. But unless ordinary citizens possess the means with which to protect those sacred rights from violent infringement, our constitution becomes nothing more than meaningless words on worthless paper.
Without firearms in the hands of trained, responsible, and law-abiding citizens, we are leaving them at the mercy of violent criminals. And such a situation completely contravenes the spirit of our Constitution.
Gideon is owner and editor of Paratus. He holds no legal qualification.