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Cape children caught in crossfire, summit told

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Stray bullets have taken a terrible toll on Cape Town’s children, the National Firearms Summit heard during its first day of sitting at Parliament on Tuesday.

“We looked at the children coming in with gunshot [wounds], and over the last 20 years we’ve seen a total of 476 children, under the age of 12, who were admitted after being shot,” Prof Sebastian van As of the Red Cross Children’s Hospital told MPs and others attending the two-day event.

Van As, a surgeon, has been head of the hospital’s Paediatric Trauma Unit for the past 15 years.

The Red Cross Children’s Hospital, which is affiliated with the University of Cape Town, serves the western parts of the metropole.

Of the 476 children treated by its trauma unit over the period 1991 to 2010, a total of 43 percent were the victims of crossfire.

“The vast majority of them are hit in crossfire. So, there is a fight somewhere, bullets are flying… and the child happens to be there and catches the bullet.”

Others were shot deliberately by an adult (nine percent); shot deliberately by another child (three percent); shot while playing with a firearm (two percent); shot by gangsters (five percent); or, were the victims of an “accidental” shooting (14 percent).

The summit is being hosted by Parliament’s police portfolio committee.

Van As showed his audience photos of children with gunshot wounds, as well as X-ray photos of bullets and shrapnel lodged in young bodies.

One was of a very young child from the Cape Flats, whose poor family lived in a wooden Wendy house.

“During the night there was a gang fight and they [the child’s parents] heard some shooting… In the morning, they went to pick up the child from the cot and [found] one of the bullets had gone through the wall into the child. The bullet lodged next to the heart.”

Another photo was of a small baby, his tiny head swathed in bandages after being hit by a stray bullet.

“This child didn’t make it. He was in intensive care for two or three days and then died,” Van As said.

He said the Firearms Control Act, which came into affect in 2004, had led to a big reduction in the number of children being admitted to the Red Cross Children’s Hospital with gunshot wounds.

“It led to a reduction of about 70 percent. It really had a massive impact.”

It had also resulted in a significant drop in the number of gun-related deaths in Cape Town, which nearly halved between 2001 and 2005.

Van As questioned whether owning a firearm really made the people who owned them any safer.

He said studies done in the United States had found that of all the shots fired in the home or garden, only three percent were d in self-defence.

“Of which half were in self-defence against a family member. Only 1.5 percent [were fired] in self-defence against a stranger.”

Van As further spoke of the effect of violence on children.

“Guns have a devastating effect on our society… Children are disproportionately affected by guns, because they’re always innocent. They are not the ones who are shooting, they are the ones being shot.

“They are sitting ducks. They are being hit by stray bullets.”

He suggested the minimum age for gun ownership be raised to 25.

“The reason for that is your decision-making process, to understand the future consequences of your actions… only matures at 25,” he said.

Psychiatrist Dr Lane Benjamin, a trauma specialist working in some of Cape Town’s gang-plagued Cape Flats suburbs, said violence, including gun violence, was a daily reality for residents.

A study carried out among more than 600 adolescents, aged 12 to 15, in Hanover Park, had revealed that 69 percent of them had seen someone get shot in the neighbourhood.

Further, 41 percent had witnessed someone threatening another with a gun, 48 percent had seen a dead body in the street, and 93 percent had experienced more than one type of violence.

She warned that violence was on the increase, and spanned generations.

“It’s not just an increased level of violence and inter-personal violence, but the intensity and nature of violence has also increased, as well as much younger children being engaged in acts of violence,” Benjamin said.

The summit brings together about 150 practitioners and members of civil society comprising key policing personnel, policy-makers, legislators, government departments, trade unions and members of academic institutions.

It aims, according to the organisers, to develop a common approach to addressing the proliferation of firearms in the country. SAPA

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