The outcome of the now infamous Pistorius case has generated substantial discussion that is not dissimilar to the conversation that ensued following a similar case of “domestic violence” here in Barbados some years ago. In both instances a loved one died after an accidental collision with a bullet and while the case here was a single shot, in the Pistorius case the victim was shot at four times.
The Pistorius case was highly publicised while the peculiarities of our legal system here are such that we had to glean what we could of the evidence which informed the magistrate’s decision. In both instances, however, the verdicts avoided the severest criminal sanction and questions are being raised in both quarters about the extent to which justice in both Barbados and South Africa is tempered based on the offender’s fame and fortune.
It is perhaps necessary that I state my own perspective which is one that has always acknowledged the extent to which justice seems to favour those with money or influence and this assertion applies equally to Barbados, South Africa and indeed most other countries. This is a view that is widely shared by those who have run afoul of the system along with those among us who care to observe the justice system and one therefore assumes some amount of validity in this perception.
At the same time, however, I am equally inclined to think that many among us are too anxious to assume that factors such as race, power or influence are the sole bases on which offenders escape the harshest treatment. As such the justice system has been attacked in the wake of both verdicts when, in all fairness, the assessment of the facts seem quite fair.
In neither instance does it seem likely that the accused intended to kill their domestic victim and the facts seem to support the idea that both were very unfortunate accidents. The argument that a poor person would in similar circumstances suffer a worse fate does not mean that a rich person standing in the dock should automatically be convicted regardless of the accidental circumstances.
The central argument here therefore is that the social origins of the defendants in both instances is an unfortunate distraction from the problem that is highlighted, which is the presence of guns in the home, compounded either stupidity or irrational behaviour. The secondary factor can be either permanent or temporarily caused by immediate circumstances or historic emotional baggage, but in either instance the secondary factor relies on the primary one to bring about these tragic outcomes.
Although the crime situations in Barbados and South Africa are not comparable, it is interesting that in both instances ordinary citizens have chosen to arm themselves especially when both sets of persons live in circumstances where they would ordinarily be less vulnerable.
It is a familiar story where the individual feels vulnerable and believes that a gun makes them safer, when the incidents demonstrate the extent to which a gun has the reverse effect.
At a broader level, this is a perspective that the American society needs to consider since it has traditionally been more comfortable with guns and one is not sure the extent to which that society has become safer. If one compares the murder rate due to gun crimes in the United States with that of Britain, it becomes clear that presence of guns in the hands of more Americans has not made them any safer and has actually made them more vulnerable.
Of late, America has come face to face with the most horrific instances of unstable persons who have been able to get hold of guns and slaughter innocents and thus far that country’s leadership has not been able to impose a rigorous policy to reduce the quantity of guns in circulation or to control their ownership.
Those among us who defend the right of the citizen to own a gun will no doubt focus on the stupidity of people in the two captioned incidents and argue that if such people had been evaluated or trained, the incidents could have been prevented.
They, however, ignore an equally obvious reality that a gun is designed for a single purpose which has nothing to do with the preservation of human life. Therefore one’s willingness to own a gun presumes a willingness under specific circumstances to use it in the termination of another’s life.
Regardless of whether human stupidity can be considered “innocent” as in the local case, or “episodic” as in the Pistorius case, both are examples of the disastrous consequences of accidents brought on by human factors. The fact we are prone to such mistakes should emphasise the logic of ridding ourselves of implements from which no good can come, both at the individual level and moreover at the level of our societies.
• Peter W. Wickham is a political consultant and a director of Caribbean Development Research Services (CADRES).