Battle of wills: A gun shop in Kempton Park. SA’s R8bn-a-year recreational and trophy hunting industry has long opposed the anti-firearm movement, claiming that its members will be most affected by tighter regulations. Picture: SUPPLIED
Battle of wills: A gun shop in Kempton Park. SA’s R8bn-a-year recreational and trophy hunting industry has long opposed the anti-firearm movement, claiming that its members will be most affected by tighter regulations. Picture: SUPPLIED

About 400,000 people are now deemed to be illegal firearm owners following a ruling by the Constitutional Court on Thursday upholding the constitutionality of regular firearms licence renewals.

This means possession of an unlicensed firearm constitutes an offence and is subjected to criminal penalties, Justice Johan Froneman said.

Gun owners with unlicensed firearms must surrender them to the police. SA’s R8bn-a-year recreational and trophy hunting industry has long opposed the anti-firearm movement, saying tighter regulations would affect its members most.

The industry estimates that of the 12,000 game farms in the country, more than 10,000 have a hunting exemption. It expects to have created about 220,000 jobs by 2020.

In a unanimous ruling, the court upheld an appeal by the minister of safety and security by dismissing a high court order which had declared that two sections of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 were unconstitutional. It ruled that gun ownership was not a fundamental right under SA’s Bill of Rights but a privilege regulated by the act.

In 2016, the Hunters and Game Conservation Association challenged sections 24 and 28 of the Firearms Control Act of 2000, which stipulated that gun owners were required to regularly renew their firearm licences, saying the sections were vague, irrational, breached the right of equality and deprived gun owners of their property. Under the act, gun owners who have not renewed their licences must forfeit their firearms to the state.

Under a previous act, a gun licence lasted a lifetime.

In the judgment, Froneman said the provisions of the new act could not be clearer.

"It is an offence to possess a firearm without a licence obtained in terms of the act. Once one has obtained a licence one needs to renew it at least 90 days before the date of expiry. I can see no legal obstacle to handing the firearm over to the police after termination [of the licence]. The fear that the gun-owner may be liable for prosecution if he takes steps to hand over the unlicensed firearm is overstated," said Froneman.

Lobby group Gun Free SA, acting as a friend of the court, welcomed the ruling, saying that in the context of killings in defensive gun use, the significance of the judgment could not be emphasised enough. It said the court’s affirmation of the act of 2000 brought SA’s gun control regime within an international legal and political gun control framework.

But Gun Free SA director Adèle Kirsten warned that the ruling meant nothing unless the police enforced the law and gun owners complied. "Since 2010 there’s been a steady erosion in the effectiveness of the Firearms Control Act to save lives as a result of actions by the police and gun owners. In a vacuum of leadership, the South African Police Service has consistently failed to enforce the law while many gun owners have sought and exploited loopholes in the law to bypass controls and accumulate guns."

Dries van Coller, the president of the Professional Hunters’ Association of SA, said it had ensured that its members complied with the new law. "But it is a pity that law-abiding citizens are now being criminalised."