He found it in the wreckage of a small plane that came down near his house in rural North West. He treasured the weapon and his adult neighbour taught him to use it to commit crime.
He was a quick learner and his first robbery was from the post office in the small town where he lived.
When Hlupha was 16 and had his second gun, he shot a boy at school in the stomach after he flirted with Hlupha’s girlfriend. He went on to commit many more robberies and murders, until he was arrested and convicted of kidnapping, robbery and assault.
When we met him, he was in prison.
Guns and emotion
Velabahleke was just 10 when he stole his first gun from a man down the road from his grandmother’s house in Thokoza on Johannesburg’s East Rand.
He found his second gun two years later, when shops were looted during political protests.
Velabahleke spoke about many things that had happened during his life: how his father had beaten his mother when he was angry with her; how his father waited until it was late and the children were asleep to drag them out of bed and beat them for things they had done wrong during the day; and how he had been beaten with pipes and canes by the teachers at school when he played truant.
But it was only when we started speaking about guns that Velabahleke expressed emotion.
He said his gun changed his life. It brought him status among his peers and meant he no longer had to rely on entrepreneurial skills to earn a living. He could do much better from robbery.
The gun made him feel safer, but ironically also increased the danger he faced. Velabahleke said he had lots of enemies, and told us “the first enemy would be the person who wants this very gun that you are carrying, but on the other hand, I was carrying a gun because I needed to get money by using the gun. When you carry a gun, your life is at risk.”
In the end, he said: “The gun became part of the very fabric of my being.”
These are just some of the stories we heard while speaking to men serving sentences for violent crime.
It was apparent that owning a gun was significant for them; it changed their behaviour and escalated their crimes. The earlier they got a gun, the earlier they committed serious acts of violence.
Having a gun did not necessarily cause the criminal careers of these men, but it did affect the nature and severity of their crimes.
It was as if by owning a gun they crossed an invisible boundary between normal society and the criminal circles they moved in, signifying a permanent shift and untethering any bonds that restrained them.
Gun ownership let them rob more often and more effectively.
Many of the guns used by Hlupha and Velabahleke had at some point been licensed and legally owned by men and women who believed they would protect them. Instead, the guns were stolen and used to commit violent crimes, kill people and devastate lives.
Over the past 21 years, we have started to understand much more about gun ownership and gun-related deaths in South Africa.
In 1994, there were 3.5 million licensed firearms in the hands of 2.4 million individuals.
Handguns were most popular, as they are light, easy to conceal and require little expertise to shoot. This makes them the weapon of choice for criminals and those who wish to protect themselves and their families.
In 2011, there were just over 3 million firearms in the hands of 1.8 million licensed gun owners in South Africa, according to the Central Firearms Registry.
We simply don’t know how many illegal and unlicensed firearms are in circulation. Even one is too many.
One of the most effective ways to get rid of illegal guns is to hold another firearms amnesty.
The 2005 amnesty in support of stricter gun laws saw 100 066 firearms and their components handed in. The amnesty recovered almost 2 million rounds of ammunition.
Most firearms are owned by men, and most victims of firearm homicide are men.
In 2009, the last year for which data is available, 89% of the 6 428 people shot and killed were men. Male deaths due to gun violence and suicide are particularly high in the 15-to-44 age group, peaking in the 25-to-29 age group.
Through the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS), researchers are able to examine gun-related deaths over a decade.
The NIMSS is a national mortuary-based system that captures information regarding the who, what, when, where and how of nonnatural deaths, including those from guns. In 2009, the NIMSS data suggested there had been an almost 50% reduction in gun deaths since the introduction of the Firearms Control Act passed by Parliament in 2000.
This suggests that making it harder to own a gun, reducing the number of guns in circulation and strengthening national gun laws can result in fewer guns. That translates into less gun violence.
Australia, Brazil and Colombia found the same thing. There is also evidence that strong gun laws reduce other violent crimes, such as attempted murder and assault.
Simply put, without the presence of a gun, people like Lucky Dube, Senzo Meyiwa and Reeva Steenkamp could not have been shot dead. And there are many thousands like them.
If we are going to prevent men like Velabahleke and Hlupha from committing violent crimes, then we have to stop them from seeking firearms in the first place.
What can be done to limit access to firearms?
.Control the legal stocks of guns, and limit the number and types of firearms a person can own.
. Take illegal guns out of circulation through police operations and firearms amnesties.
. Stop the flow of legal guns into criminal hands by reducing corruption and fraud in the firearms control management system.
What can you do?
. Report illegal firearms and any person who misuses a weapon.
. Support positive parenting so that people like Velabahleke’s father know how to discipline children without resorting to violence.
. We need to make sure teachers identify truancy as a symptom of deeper problems.
TALK TO US: Do you own a gun?
Gould is a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies and Kirsten is from Gun Free SA