Gun control is extremely topical on a global scale at the moment. In the US, citizens are attempting to recover from the Orlando and Dallas shootings that have recently dominated the media. In our own backyard, South Africans became acutely aware of gun control when Oscar Pistorius shot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp dead in 2013. Whether you agree or disagree, arms access is pertinent to your constitutional knowledge.
There are two sides to gun control. On the pro-side stand organisations such as Gun Free South Africa (GFSA), who noted that in 2011 there were over 2.9 million registered guns to over 1.5 million owners. This is contrasted to the unknown statistics of unregistered guns, which are estimated to sit anywhere between 500 000 and four million. The GFSA encourages the notion that gun control equates to crime control. These organisations aim to restrict access to weaponry and encourage harsh punishment for crimes involving guns.
On the other side stand organisations like the South African Gun Owners Association (SAGOA) who are vehemently against harsh gun control stating that such restrictions only encourage illegal arms dealings, because if a person wants to shoot another person they will find a way, regardless of what the law says. SAGOA encourages education over regulation.
The Firearm Control Act (FCA) came into effect in 2000, replacing the Arms and Ammunition Act of 1969. The FCA places more control over the requirements to obtain a gun license. While owning a gun in South Africa is permitted, it is not a right. According to the FCA, in order to own a gun you needs to possess a license for it. Gaining such a license is determined by a competency test and several other factors that include a background and mental health check, inspection of the owner’s house and, as of July 2004, licensing of the actual weapon by the police, which requires a personal statement justifying the purchase of the weapon. The police have a maximum of 90 days to either deny or grant access to a license.
A self-defence license is valid for five years and all sport and hunting licenses are valid for ten years. When the license expires, the entire process above must be repeated. It is important to note that a gun can be used by anyone for self-defence in the correct situation without fear of penalty, but the purchasing of a gun intended for any self-defence in the future requires a license.
In 2015 the draft of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill was released to the public for comment. Proposed additions to firearm legislation include mandatory ballistics tests and microdots on each gun in order to keep track of gun holders and to also gain up-to-date statistics on gun ownership and registration in South Africa, an area that appears to be lacking information. Other additions to the amendment include harsh punishments for illegal arms dealers and a minimum of five years to be served in prison if a person is found to be in possession of a firearm in a criminal situation, regardless of whether it was fired or not.
Critics of the bill state that the South African Police Service would not be able to keep up with the data, which is evident from the fact that before the 2006 amendment to the FCA, the backlog of unanswered license requests resulted in a waiting period of two years for over one million licenses. The draft is not yet finalised and many debates regarding the pros and cons of it are expected to still take place.
The question that remains to be answered is if restriction of guns is the solution or whether the answer lies in relatively easy access to guns by a society educated in proper gun use and safety.
Image: Ciske van den Heever