This article is a shortened version of the first in a series of policy briefings by Gun Free South Africa on firearm control. The full policy briefing can be downloaded here.
Violence takes many forms: it can be self-directed, interpersonal, or collective. Another form of violence that is relevant in South Africa is structural violence – this is where violence is built into the structures of a society and show up as unequal power.
People are affected differently by violence; for example, young people are most at risk for engaging in acts of violence and are most likely to be victims of violence.
Preventing violence therefore requires a multi-sectoral and holistic approach to ensure that the impact of violence on individuals, communities and society as a whole, is reduced. This means finding out some of the key drivers of and risk factors for violence and developing both short and long-term interventions that will make a difference.
By focusing on a small number of key issues, the levels of violence can be substantially reduced in the short-term; this includes reducing access to guns and alcohol as well as ensuring that young people stay in school for as long as possible.
Public health approach to violence prevention: Understanding risk and protective factors
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been in the forefront of violence prevention across the world, drawing on the experience of other public health efforts that have been successful such as reducing and preventing pregnancy-related complications and workplace injuries.
One of the principles of public health is combining on-going research into understanding the cause and consequences of violence as well as using an evidence-based approach to developing primary prevention programmes and policy interventions.
The public health approach provides a framework for differentiating between risk and protective factors for violence: risk factors are those characteristics or conditions that increase the likelihood of violence occurring while protective factors are shields that reduce or eliminate these risks.
Understanding risk factors and protective factors play a crucial role in effective violence prevention efforts: the evidence shows that reducing risk factors and/or strengthening protective factors leads to the prevention of violence and crime.
The public health approach has played a significant role in understanding some of the risk factors for gun related violence, namely: availability and easy access to guns; and availability and harmful use of alcohol.
Furthermore, addressing some of the social determinants of violence, which are further up the causal chain, such as income inequality, unemployment, and access to housing, education and other public infrastructure, through policies directed at these macro-level social factors, is essential in reducing the inequities which fuel interpersonal and collective violence.
Public health approach to reducing gun violence
Gun violence is most often associated with a combination of individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence.
However, the most consistent predictor of gun violence is a history of violent behaviour, including witnessing violence. In addition, the easy availability or access to firearms whether in a home or a community, constitutes one of the key risk factors.
Most gun control advocates and organisations across the world have used the public health framework in understanding the nature and extent of gun violence within a particular context, and using the evidence to find out what works to prevent gun violence.
The four basic steps of the public health approach to preventing violence are easily applied to efforts to reduce and prevent gun violence. These include:
- Defining the problem through the systematic collection of data;
- Conducting research, or using existing data, to explore why violence occurs and who it affects; this includes identifying risk and protective factors for engaging in acts of violence or being a victim of violence;
- Designing, implementing and evaluating interventions to see what works;
- Scaling-up effective policy and programmes
Evidence shows that limiting access to firearms (especially for young men between 15-29 years-old) can prevent homicides, suicides and injuries, thereby reducing the costs of these forms of violence. The data also shows that countries with ‘restrictive’ firearms law and lower firearm ownership levels tend to have lower levels of gun violence.
Other interventions that have shown some success in reducing gun deaths include: legislative measures, improving enforcement of legislation, firearms amnesties and collection schemes, managing state weapons stockpiles as well as reducing demand for guns.
Violence can be prevented: the factors that contribute to people engaging in violence can be changed.
Prevention is most effective when efforts are coordinated across different sectors (e.g. early childhood development, education, criminal justice, family care, health care, youth work, social services), and at different levels (e.g. individual, community or society).
Using a combination of short-term goals that can yield immediate results (i.e. reducing access to guns) with long-term goals that require an investment in influencing behaviour change (i.e. early childhood education) as well as systemic institutional change (i.e. a more effective criminal justice system) can ensure long lasting impacts that help reduce overall levels of violence and help build safe communities in South Africa.