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From Fieldwork to Facts to Firearms Control: Research and Advocacy towards Firearm Control Legislation in South Africa

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Author: 
Maylene Shung-King
Paula Proudlock
Lori Michelson
Affiliation: 

Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town

Publication Date

August 15, 2005

This 26-page case study examines the participation of the Child Health Policy Institute (CHPI) (now the Children's Institute) in a South African law reform process aimed at reducing firearm injuries and deaths in the country. CHPI, the forerunner of the Children's Institute, was an academic policy research organisation at the University of Cape Town. After a brief description of the political context in which the project was initiated, the study examines the research on firearm injuries and deaths in children conducted by the CHPI, focusing particularly on the communication of the research findings and the outcome of the associated advocacy efforts.

Excerpts from the Summary follow:

"...Firearm injuries contribute significantly to the high incidence of deaths and injuries among children in the 5-18 year-age group. They are the leading cause of death in young South African males in their late teens and also feature in trauma-related causes of death in children younger than five...

In the early 1990s the high incidence of firearm deaths and injuries in South Africa gave rise to a civil society campaign and a policy and law reform process towards stricter firearm control. This policy culminated in the new Firearms Control Act of 2004, which replaced the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1969.

The need for tighter firearms control was first taken up in 1994 by a civil society organisation called Gun Free South Africa (GFSA). In response to GFSA’s calls for stricter gun control and the social and political dangers to the country from the proliferation of guns and rising incidence of gun-related deaths, the government initiated a process of examining existing firearm control legislation and looking at ways of improving the law....

In 1998 the Child Health Policy Institute released a research report that described firearm injuries to children in the metropolitan region of the Western Cape Province (a largely urban province, with one of the highest crime rates in the country).

The research confirmed a rising number of firearm injuries among children, the majority of whom were adolescent males living in areas where poverty, drugs and gang-related activities were rife. A significant number of injuries occurred among younger children caught in the crossfire of disputes both within and outside their homes. Collateral information confirmed that a significant portion of illegal guns were obtained through theft from the pool of legally-owned guns.

The research report was widely distributed as part of an extensive communication and advocacy strategy, and strategic collaborations were forged with other academic and civil society organisations. Part of the strategy was to join and form a strategic alliance with the [Gun Control Alliance , or ] GCA to identify allies on the Portfolio Committee on Safety and Security and also within other parliamentary structures, and to ensure press coverage of the research and related events.

The principles underlying the communication and advocacy strategy were that:

  • Good data from a credible academic institution would carry weight with the executive decision-makers and members of parliament (MPs).
  • Teaming up with service providers who treated children with gunshot injuries would provide the real picture behind the statistics.
  • Highlighting the plight of children as innocent victims of violence would stir the emotions of politicians and persuade them to want to do ‘the right thing’.
  • Emphasis had to be placed on children’s rights and specifically on their right to life, health and safety.
  • Forming strategic alliances with the GCA would increase the chances of our research and key messages being taken up by partner organisations, thus ensuring wider dissemination and use.
  • Focusing on a limited number of key messages relating to areas in the Bill that we most wanted to change, these being the areas in the Bill that could potentially benefit children and their caregivers the most.

...The impact of the work of the CHPI, whilst it cannot be viewed in isolation, is captured in the fact that the research was one of the studies cited in government’s “fact book on firearms” that was launched alongside the new policy on stricter gun control. In addition, the research findings were used in submissions of other academic and civil society organisations. The most important outcome was that 80% of the recommendations of the GCA (and therefore also the CHPI) were incorporated into the Bill. This victory must be credited to the phenomenal coordination and mobilisation strategy of the GCA and the various research and advocacy contributions from all alliance members...

Valuable lessons were learnt along the way, and some known advocacy principles were reinforced. The first is that advocacy supported by sound research evidence is a winning combination. Secondly is the fact that strategic alliances lead to a synergistic effect. Thirdly, that research on its own is unlikely to influence the policy process and that it has to be encased within a broader strategy if we want to maximise its potential impact on policy and law reform. Finally, although it is certain that the research and advocacy did make a contribution to the policy and law reform, it is not possible to know the extent to which it ultimately swayed the policy-makers. Therefore timely evaluation to reflect on these processes soon after completion is crucial as memories fade and people move on if postponed for too long.

...Preliminary statistics show that a large number of illegal firearms have been handed in at the beginning of 2005 in the government’s amnesty period for the voluntary handing in of illegal firearms and ammunition. While the law has only recently been put into effect, and therefore the impact of the law reform cannot yet be measured, a decline in child firearm injuries at a large children’s hospital in the study area has been observed over the past two years. The extensive media coverage that the campaigns generated can be said to have shifted public mindset towards responsible gun ownership and gun usage. This reiterates the point that research on its own is unlikely to influence policy and law reform. However, when encased within a broader strategy, its potential impact can be maximised."

Source: 

The Children’s Institute website on December 12 2005; and email from Charmaine Smith to The Communication Initiative on October 9 2006.

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