Over the last few years mass shootings in the USA as well as shootings in public places such as shopping malls in South Africa have raised the question of whether these public places are targeted because they are Gun Free Zones (GFZs).
However, the evidence tells a different story: only 13 per cent of the mass shootings that occurred in the USA between 2009 and 2015 took place in a so-called gun-free zone, while the vast majority of mass shootings took place where the carrying of a gun is legally permitted.
In South Africa, the idea of creating safe places through establishing GFZs has been in the public domain since 1995 and has been incorporated into SA’s firearms control framework.
What is a Gun Free Zone?
A Gun Free Zone is a space in which guns and ammunition are neither welcome nor allowed. It is a geographically limited space, denoted by the ‘no-gun’ sign, where the carrying or possession of a gun(s) is prohibited.
GFZs can be initiated by national and local governments as well as by business or NGOs, or directly by communities at the grassroots level.
Some countries have established temporary GFZs, such as limiting gun carrying during the months leading up to elections in order to reduce deadly election-related violence; or as in South Africa, declaring all football stadiums as Gun Free Zones during the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Across the world, Gun Free Zones are used as a tool to reduce armed violence and promote public safety in communities. When there are no guns in a space, it becomes safer and more secure for everyone in it.
In addition to immediately reducing the risk of gun-related violence, research both in South Africa and elsewhere has shown that the establishment of GFZs can have a number of medium-term outcomes, such as changing social norms and attitudes related to guns as well as improving policing and/or police-community relations.
These achievements can in turn lead to more long-term outcomes such as reducing the demand for guns; thereby decreasing the number of guns in circulation and making people feel safer.
In a South African study, one of the key findings was that “GFZs can be important innovations that play a critical role in some communities, enhancing social cohesion and providing residents with a tangible means through which to express their commitment to a more safe and secure society.”
Furthermore, GFZs were seen as indicators of people’s commitment to this vision of a “peaceful social order.”
Outcomes of GFZ for reducing violence
Advantages & Limitations
The research has also shown that Gun Free Zones have both advantages and limitations.
- Can be easily implemented, as little technical knowledge is required;
- Can deliver impact in a shorter period of time than most other gun control policies;
- Address issues of social norms related to guns and demand for them, which are rarely addressed by other gun control initiatives;
- Serve as a vehicle to mobilize communities to participate in a wider debate about gun control and violence prevention policy; and
- Can promote dialogue among national and local authorities, police and communities on gun violence and safety issues.
- Are unlikely to end gun violence without supplementary measures to control small arms supply and improve community security;
- Are unlikely to achieve their desired results if the zone’s gun-free status is not well-communicated to or understood by the public;
- May not deter all individuals from carrying guns into GFZs; and
- Can be undermined if violations are not adequately dealt with.
Establishing Gun Free Zones in South Africa
Gun Free South Africa (GFSA) started the Gun Free Zone project in 1995 as one way to work with communities in creating safe spaces, providing people with a number of practical tools to address gun violence in their communities, as well as creating opportunities for people to demonstrate their commitment to a more secure and peaceful future.
GFSA developed a participatory model to support people who live in a community affected by gun violence in developing and managing GFZ based on their ideas and experiences. This can include developing partnerships with different stakeholders including the SAPS and Community Policing Forums.
GFSA also developed a 5 step plan for declaring a Gun Free Zone:
- Establishing the vision: putting into words what you want to achieve by making your space a GFZ, and ensuring the buy-in from everyone to achieve this vision;
- Developing a policy: making sure that there is agreement on issues ranging from signage and communication strategies to safe storage and procedures for preventing the entry of someone carrying a gun;
- Preparing for implementation: bringing in key stakeholders which includes all users of the space; training staff who will be responsible for enforcing the policy; developing signage and registers as well as conducting awareness campaigns for users of the GFZ;
- Implementing: putting the GFZ policy into practice; and
- Maintaining and monitoring: ensuring ongoing awareness and education campaigns as well as tracking impact and assessing enforcement.
Gun Free Zones are now widespread across South Africa: they are found in educational institutions such as crèches, schools and universities; in community centres and libraries; in health facilities such as hospitals and community clinics; in provincial and national government buildings; and in taverns and shebeens.
The Firearms Control Act and Firearm Free Zones
One of the most significant impacts of the GFZ project was its influence on firearms policy and legislation, resulting in the provision for Firearm Free Zones (FFZs) in the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (FCA).
The FCA Regulations require that the owners/managers of a FFZ apply to the Minister of Police to have a space declared as a Firearm Free Zone. In this application the terms of the declaration need to be specified which could, for example, exempt certain gun carriers (such as police officers) from being subject to the FFZ.
For Gun Free Zones or Firearm Free Zones to reduce in gun violence, they must be wanted, respected and enforced. Adopting an inclusive and participatory approach in the implementation of GFZs is key to their success, enhancing people’s feelings of security within that space.
Moreover, tangible increases in safety radiate beyond a Gun Free Zones. Research into the ripple effect of GFZs on broader community safety found a reported reduction in the number of gunshot victims presenting at a health facility as well as a reduction in the public carrying of guns.
It is time that the FFZ provision of the FCA is fully implemented so that we can all be part of making our communities safer.
For more information
- Gun-Free Zones Guidelines. First edition. 2013 UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, New York. USA
- Kirsten et al. 2006. Islands of Safety in a Sea of Guns: Gun-free Zones in South Africa’s Fothane, Diepkloof and Khayelitsha. Working Paper 3. Small Arms Survey. Geneva. Switzerland.