How much does gun violence cost a country? For South Africa, which has one of the highest per capita rates of gun violence in the world, a recent study by Gun Free South Africa puts the price at ZAR26 billion a year, or about $2 billion. This is equivalent to about 15% of South Africa’s annual national health budget.
The Gun Free South Africa briefing was prompted by a bizarre comparison made by the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa (PHASA) to parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Police in early June. Hunting, PHASA claimed, contributes ZAR9 billion to the economy, justifying the easy availability of guns. The ethical implicationis, to say the least, unusual; that the death of some 5000 people a year in South Africa as a result of gun violence can be offset against the killing of a large number of animals because of the net contribution to the economy. The financial benefit may also be overstated; other estimates put the economic value at a fraction of PHASA’s claim. But profit often trumps ethics, particularly where armaments are involved. So, assuming that the sport of killing animals does indeed net South Africa ZAR9 billion a year, does this justify gun sales in economic terms?
There has yet to be a comprehensive study of the economic cost of gun violence in South Africa, but Gun Free South Africa has produced a credible proxy from the information that is available.
In 2014 each gun-injured patient cost the state health service an average of ZAR22 000 for emergency transport, surgery, ICU and hospital ward stay, diagnostic imaging and blood products. Additional costs, impossible to quantify without more research, include staff salaries and laboratory products. Looked at another way, the total cost in the same year for just one hospital in treating gunshot injuries to patients admitted for more than twelve hours was ZAR11 million. Also in 2014, 4% of the national health budget was taken up by treating some 20 000 patients across the country with serious abdominal gunshot injuries.
And then there are those who died. In calculating the economic cost of murder, GFSA has used the Value of Statistical Life (VSL) model, already accepted as a basis for estimating the cost of alcohol abuse. This puts the current average value of a life in South Africa at ZAR4.7 million. With at least 5000 people killed by guns each year, a reasonable estimate of the economic cost of lives lost is at least ZAR23.5 billion.
So even if hunting were to contribute ZAR9 billion to the South African economy each year, the price of death and injury to people from gunshot wounds is far higher.
In its 2015 report, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development puts Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela and South Africa as the four countries paying the highest price for firearm violence in terms of lives lost and economic damage. The converse, of course, is that these countries also have the most to gain by reducing gun violence, which is why appropriate and enforced public policy is important.
Here, South Africa’s trajectory over the last fifteen years is instructive. The key change in legislation was in 2000, with the promulgation of the Firearms Control Act. Published studies show that, over the following five years, there were significant reductions in deaths from gunshot wounds, with over 4500 lives saved in South Africa’s major cities during this period. A study of the killing of women and children in domestic gun violence has shown that deaths fell by a quarter in the decade following the change in legislation.
But police crime statistics suggest that these gains are now being lost, with the number of people murdered each day increasing from 43 in 2011 to 47 by 2014. There are some indications – yet to be fully tested – that this increase in the murder rate is because gun violence is again increasing. This emerging trend coincides with reports of poor enforcement of the Firearms Control Act, including easier approvals of gun licence applications by the Central Firearms Registry and fraud and corruption in firearms control management including well-publicised accusations involving the police.
Hunting is big money. It is reported that about 9000 trophy hunters come to South Africa each year, 90% Americans. And in America, studies of gun violence have but the cost at a staggering US$229 billion. Further, of course, these cold economics take no account of the emotional toll on all those affected by violence, and the prevalent damage to the quality of life that the imminence of violence brings.
As Gun Free South Africa concludes in its briefing:
While the costs associated with implementing the Firearms Control Act are high, the cost of gun violence is significant, as are the savings resulting when lives are saved from gun violence through effective gun control policy and implementation of the law.
Gun Free South Africa 2015: Firearms Control Briefing 15: What does gun violence cost? www.gfsa.org.za
Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development 2015. Global Burden of Armed Violence 2015: Every Body Counts http://www.genevadeclaration.org/measurability/global-burden-of-armed-violence/global-burden-of-armed-violence-2015.html