Police reliability but one concern in gun amnesty
Just outside Tshwane, towards Emalahleni, a narrow nondescript dirt road, muddied by continuous rain, curls towards the Magnum United Shooting Range. Here, less than a week into a national firearm amnesty, a group of gun-lovers has gathered to celebrate their passion.
As is common with shooting ranges, the area is surrounded by nothing but a few industrial businesses, dirt tracks, one or two farms, and open land. It is a miserable, wet Saturday morning and the attendance at the range is poor.
Inside the clubhouse, Lynette Oxley, a woman familiar with firearms, addresses a group of about 10 young women. They are learning how to defend themselves as part of a “16 days of activism” course.
“Relax, calm down, and squeeze the trigger,” explains a colleague of Oxley wearing a #VictimNoLonger vest.
“Shoot, check where your shot is, breathe.”
Oxley says that in SA attackers are known to work in groups, sometimes as many as six. “You need to know what your abilities are,” she says, competing with deafening shots that ring out in the high-calibre range next to the building.
Violence against women in SA is at a crisis point. Details of atrocious attacks appear in broadcasts and newspapers almost daily. The reality is far worse. Almost eight women were murdered every day during the 2018/2019 financial year, according to the latest police statistics. Authorities also recorded an average of nearly 84 rapes a day over the same period.
Before the group heads out for the practical part of their course, the women take turns to practise their stance. Elbows locked, they lean forward, pointing a blue dummy pistol.
These women hope to master the very weapon that is most likely to take their and their sisters’ lives. Crime figures show that during the 2018/2019 financial year, guns killed 7,156 people — more than the next-three most common weapons combined.
Police believe these numbers will fall if there are fewer firearms in the country, not more. That is why the police minister has introduced another firearm amnesty, the fourth since democracy. It started on December 1 and will last for six months.
This is not a “no-questions-asked amnesty” in which anyone can surrender a weapon anonymously. The details of the person who surrenders the gun will be recorded and ballistic tests will also be done to determine whether the weapon was used in a crime before it is destroyed. This has been met with some criticism, as some believe it would discourage those in possession of an illegal firearm to surrender it.
“There is no way we can’t do it,” police minister Bheki Cele told reporters in November, “otherwise we will be opening a can of worms.”
In SA, however, a gun amnesty is controversial for more than one reason.
The success of a gun amnesty largely depends on the capacity and capability of the police. To ensure there are fewer unlawful weapons in the hands of private citizens, the police need to be able to process all the surrendered weapons, conduct ballistic tests, transport and finally destroy them, while ensuring they are not stolen or sold back to criminals.
Some South Africans have come to question this capacity while others insist their weapons are safer with them than with the police.
In a court application, brought by Paul Oxley, chair of Gun Owners SA (Gosa), a judge agreed that there are shortcomings. “I am satisfied that on the weight of the evidence it is clear that dishonest and untoward behaviour in certain ranks of the police at certain locations when it comes to the guarding and handling of firearms has become the order of the day,” the high court ruled in 2018.
The guns are perfectly safe in the people’s hands, but now we’re going to go and give them to the police who are going to lose them, or sell them, or whateverPaul Oxley, chair of Gun Owners SA
While the figures were not public at the time, Cele later revealed that the police lost 4,357 firearms over the past six years. Responding to a parliamentary question by the Freedom Front Plus (FF Plus) in August, Cele admitted that over the same period the police also lost 9,555,426 rounds of ammunition. Assuming a capacity of 15 rounds per magazine, that is enough bullets to fill the pistols of every one of the 101,299 visible policing officers in SA, six times over.
With a further estimated 450,000 firearms with expired licences in the country, the high court also questioned whether the police would be able to meet its obligations should all of these be surrendered.
Oxley is standing in the mud at the shooting range. Next to him is a table filled with guns ranging from a pistol, similar to what the police use, and a pink pump-action shotgun, belonging to his wife, to an AK47 and an M4.
“The guns are perfectly safe in the people’s hands, but now we’re going to go and give them to the police who are going to lose them, or sell them, or whatever,” Oxley says, referring specifically to weapons with expired licences. “The police are absolutely rotten custodians of firearms,” he says, adding that he believes the current amnesty is pointless.
Oxley points to the high court ruling that reads that the police are not allowed to seize a weapon “for the sole reason that the licence of such a firearm has expired”. Therefore Oxley insists that a gun owner can reapply for a licence at any time, even after expiration, while criminals are unlikely to surrender unlawful weapons due to the risk of prosecution.
Still, the police maintain they have taken all the necessary measures.
“Only police stations that have secured facilities, strong rooms, safes, et cetera will receive the firearms,” said Brig Vishnu Naidoo in response to a query by Business Day. “Firearm officers have been properly trained on the processes and procedures to receive these firearms as well as the safeguarding thereof.”
Naidoo said some have already accepted the invitation as more than 150 guns were surrendered in the first few days of the amnesty. He insisted that it provides an opportunity for people to surrender unlawful weapons without the threat of prosecution for simply being in possession of a gun illegally.
“Furthermore, the circumstances under which firearms are taken from police officers in most instances are not due to negligence but during attacks,” said Naidoo.
Gun Free SA acknowledges the challenges the police face. When it welcomed the latest amnesty, it called for independent observers “to ensure oversight and transparency and to identify problems”.
Despite these concerns, the organisation said that when implemented well, a firearm amnesty “holds the potential to begin reversing SA's gun violence crisis”. But it is difficult to gauge its effectiveness.
After the six-month amnesty at the start of 2005, the overall murder rate (in the absence of more detailed figures for guns) dropped slightly in the reporting period that followed to 39.6 murders per 100,000 people.
A similar situation unfolded after the four-month-long amnesty in 2010, during which more than 40,000 weapons and over 550,000 bullets were surrendered. In the 2010/2011 financial year, the murder rate dropped 6.5% to 31.9 compared with the previous reporting period. Despite population growth, 894 fewer murders were recorded in 2010/2011 than the previous year.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that the group of women at the Magnum range is safer now than they were before the amnesty in 2005. With firearms as the preferred weapon of choice, the murder rate increased to 36 per 100,000 in 2018/2019. In the last financial year 21,022 people were murdered in SA.
What complicates the situation even further is that most victims know their killer — up to 80%, the police reported previously. This reality, at least to some extent, negates the advantage of carrying a concealed weapon if the attacker knows where it is kept.
Johan Burger from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) says self-defence training prepares a person for much more than drawing a firearm and shooting a would-be attacker. A person will have a different understanding of the threats and be in a position to better assess a threatening situation if they have formal training.
“Self-defence training, generally speaking, is always a good thing,” says Burger, a former major-general in the police. “It does a lot in terms of your self-confidence.
“When you have that kind of training, it shows in the way that you conduct yourself,” says Burger, adding it will not only help a person know what to do, but it might also put the culprit at a disadvantage. Such knowledge and skill could prove vital in any threatening situation, whether the victim is armed or not.
But under certain circumstances, the outcome is beyond anyone.