Virtually everyone by now has heard of the Oscar Pistorius saga. Pistorius is a very popular athlete in South Africa and made headlines at the 2012 Olympic games as the first para Olympian to compete in the regular Olympics. Pistorius shot and killed his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp in the early hours of Valentines Day. Police have charged him with premeditated murder- but today he gave a compelling story of how he says he accidentally killed his girlfriend thinking she was an intruder. Police aren’t buying it and I will wait for the evidence before deciding what I think. For the purpose of this article I will assume he is telling the truth:
In his affidavit, Mr. Pistorius said that he and Ms. Steenkamp had decided to stay in for the night. He canceled plans with his friends for a night on the town in Johannesburg, while she opted against movies with one of her friends. They had a quiet evening, he said. She did yoga. He watched television. About 10 p.m., they went to sleep.
In the early morning hours, he said, he woke up to move a fan from the balcony and to close the sliding doors in the bedroom.
“I heard a noise in the bathroom and realized that someone was in the bathroom,” he said. “I felt a sense of terror rushing over me.”
He had already said in the affidavit that he feared South Africa’s rampant violent crime, and later added that he was worried because there were no bars on the window to the bathroom. Construction workers had left ladders in his garden, he said.
“I believed someone had entered my house,” he said in the affidavit. “I grabbed my 9-millimeter pistol from underneath my bed. On my way to the bathroom I screamed words to the effect for him/them to get out of my house and for Reeva to phone the police. It was pitch dark in the bedroom, and I thought Reeva was in bed.”
Walking on his stumps, he heard the sound of movement inside the toilet, a small room within the bathroom.
“It filled me with horror and fear of an intruder,” he said. “I did not have my prosthetic legs on and felt extremely vulnerable. I knew I had to protect Reeva and myself.”
He fired four shots, then hobbled over to the bedroom, screaming for Reeva to call the police. But when he got back to the bed, she was not there.
“That is when it dawned on me that it could have been Reeva who was in the toilet,” he said.
Of course we now know that it was Reeva behind that door and she died tragically. South Africa is a very violent country and home invasions are much more common than in the United States. I understand why Pistorius felt the need to own a gun for protection. I also choose to own a gun and have quick access to it in my home. However, Pistorius made huge errors in judgement that he should pay dearly for. There is zero justification for shooting through a door before identifying a target or threat of any kind. Guns cannot be used solely in fear and absent reason and judgement- when they are horrible things happen. Accidental shootings are very low in the United States and have dropped substantially- even in raw numbers- despite multiplicative population growth.
Absolutely nothing is perfectly safe- having firearms in your home included. We all must chose between trade offs when it comes to safety and make reasonable choices that balance the desire to be safe and the desire for other things. Every time we get in an automobile we make a calculated risk. We balance the desire for mobility with the desire for safety. The same is true for firearms. I strongly believe that trained, cool headed people are safer with guns than without. Chances are good they will never need the weapon but the likelihood that they might need it someday is higher than the chances of accidentally shooting someone. Roughly 800 people accidentally die by guns each year, but guns are used 500,000 to 2 million times in the same period to stop a likely attack.
Properly trained gun owners know that above all else you never pull the trigger without being positive you are willing to destroy what is in front of it- and furthermore can control the gun so that a miss won’t hit someone else. Some gun owners keep loaded firearms under their beds or in a drawer- I understand this but I think it is a mistake. When we are awoken from sleep there is a time period where we are not completely conscious. I personally favor a biometric safe, in order to retrieve my gun I need to have the wherewithal to put my finger on the reader and open the safe. It is possible this delay could someday result in me being to late to defend my family- but I simply cannot assure myself that I will be ready to use that gun if I merely need to reach under the bed for it. Even if I lived alone and without children I would have the same approach. I am balancing the concern of a negligent discharge with the concern of protecting against a real threat. Likewise if I cannot see my target I cannot fire upon it- there have been tragic stories of family members shooting one another after mistaking their loved one for an intruder.
Unfortunately an attacker almost always has the benefit of surprise but by putting obstacles in the way we make ourselves safer and much less likely to ever use a weapon. I have an alarm system, dogs- several locked doors and other layers of protection, my gun is a last resort.
If Mr. Pistorius is telling the truth- the guilt of being so negligent will be more punishment than whatever the criminal justice system will deliver. Don’t make the same mistake- if you choose to own a gun get yearly training and store it in a quick but secure safe whenever you don’t have it directly on your body- or are asleep.