Pistorius verdict reflects a troubling relationship with guns

Guns were part of Pistorius’ life at home and in public. EPA/Phill Magakoe/Pool

South African paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius has been found not guilty of the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The presiding judge, Thokozile Masipa, found him guilty, though, of culpable homicide and negligently handling a firearm and will sentence Pistorius, 27, on October 13.

Delivering her verdict, Masipa said Pistorius had acted negligently when he shot Steenkamp through a closed toilet door: “A reasonable person, with a similar disability, would have foreseen that the person behind the door would be killed, and the accused failed to take action to avoid this.”

The firearms offence relates to an incident that took place a month before Steenkamp’s death when a gun belonging to Pistorius went off in a crowded Johannesburg restaurant.

It is an important charge as it relates to the athlete’s relationship with guns. Debates about gun control existed long before the Pistorius trial – and will continue long afterwards – but we think less about what guns mean to us as individuals, even when their place in our lives leads to tragedy.

A firearm is essentially a piece of technology. And technologies, Freud argued, are prosthetics. They expand and enhance the body, enabling us to function beyond our natural capabilities. The telephone enables us to hear at distances far further than our ears allow and the microscope to see things that our eyes are not capable of perceiving.

Weapons give us power beyond what our hands can provide. As criminologist Michael McGuire argues, they are “highly complex enhancements to our prehistoric capacity for attack and defence, capable of delivering lethal, targeted force”.

The idea of technology as prosthetic is an interesting one, particularly in relation to the Pistorius case. He is known throughout the world for his athletic successes, enabled through one prosthetic – the carbon fibre blades that earned him the nickname “bladerunner”. But he is now also known for another – the firearm.

He kept one in his bedroom and used it to shoot Steenkamp but also carried them with him in public and used them at firing ranges.

If we are looking at guns as prosthetics, or extensions of the body, it could be argued that the weapon in Pistorius’ bedroom enhanced his capacity to defend himself. His weapon would be more effective than his body if his home were under invasion, as he believed.

We have heard about his considerable fear of intruders, recollections of his mother keeping a pistol under her pillow and memories of house break-ins during his adolescence. So the gun as a prosthetic reinforcing the capacity of one’s body to deflect an attack would seem to be a reasonable understanding of what firearms meant to Pistorius.

But his behaviour around firearms outside this private domain suggests that other forces were at work. Pistorius denied that he pulled the trigger when his gun went off in the restaurant in front of 200 people on January 11 2013, but the court ruled that he nevertheless acted negligently.

Pistorius was having lunch with friends at the time. He was not a frightened homeowner, woken by a potential intruder in the middle of the night. He was not fearing for the safety of himself or his girlfriend. He was a confident young man, in the light of day, with no immediate threat to his wellbeing, in the company of his peers. Here, the gun was a different kind of prosthetic. It did not extend the capacity of his physical body but his social performance.

Sociologist Erving Goffman argued that the way we present ourselves to the world is akin to a theatrical performance. We are actors on a stage, playing characters that we want our audiences to believe. For Pistorius, the firearm was a stage prop that helped him perform an exciting, dangerous and hedonistic character.

Goffman also spoke of a “backstage”, though. When not in front of an audience, a person becomes their true self, shedding the roles they play in front of others and the props and costumes that come along with the performance.

We could argue that the Pistorius trial has revealed his true or backstage self. He was shown to be a fearful, paranoid and vulnerable person when he was at home, in private. It’s a character altogether different from the part of the exciting, dangerous and hedonistic young man or the courageous, determined and successful athlete the public often saw.

In the early hours of February 14 2013, a social prosthesis became a physical one, a prop became a fatal weapon. Perhaps it is time for all gun owners to reflect on what their firearms mean to them in terms of extensions of their body and public persona. Only then might we prevent the tragedies that unfold when front and backstage collide as they did in the house on Silverwoods Estate that night.