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SA's firearms control legislation is some of the most progressive in the world. Good firearms control laws need to strike a balance. On the one hand there is the need to keep firearms out of the hands of criminals and irresponsible users. On the other, it needs to give peace-loving citizens the freedom to protect themselves and their families from violence and harm and for dedicated hunters and sportsman to have the access and ease to practice their respective disciplines without encountering an insurmountable amount of red tape.
Good firearms legislation recognises that while the ability to defend oneself from violent criminals is a precondition for societal stability, instability is created when guns are placed in the hands of the wrong people. The Firearms Control Act of 2000 achieves these aims. It does so by making it extremely difficult to legally obtain a firearm, especially if you are a person who others recognise as having a propensity for violence, or who has a criminal past. It seeks to limit the theft of firearms from legally licensed civilians through strict safekeeping requirements and requires comprehensive training on the safety precautions necessary when handling a firearm.
Considering the current challenges facing SA society it is worthwhile ignoring the needs of sport and recreation and focusing on self-defence for the purpose of this piece. So, why is there still so much violent crime in SA? Last month’s civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng brought widespread public attention to the fact that the SA Police Service — despite the heroic efforts of many of the rank-and-file sergeants and constables entrusted with keeping South Africans safe on the streets and in their homes — does not have the capacity to protect citizens' lives and property amid our huge burden of violent crime.
Police minister Bheki Cele has described the country as a “war zone”, with more than 50 people murdered on an average day. In the 2019/2020 reporting year, 21,325 cases of murder, 42,289 cases of rape, 166,720 cases of serious assault and 143,990 cases of violent robbery were recorded. Most of these crimes, regrettably, went uninvestigated, unprosecuted and unpunished, according to the National Prosecuting Authority, which has recorded a prosecution rate for this period of as low as 2%. Bear in mind that holding a perpetrator accountable is reactive and does not prevent the crime or protect lives before a violent altercation.
Considering the challenges facing the police, many South Africans, especially those living and operating businesses in rural areas, rely on self-defence firearms to keep themselves and their families safe. For many of these people, access to a licensed firearm is quite literally a matter of life and death. On the other hand, South Africans living in urban areas tend to rely heavily on private security. Even those who don’t personally employ private security indirectly rely on their services, which include guarding banks, shopping centres and hospitals, escorting goods and cash, and assisting the police with arrests. We unfortunately saw with the unrest in KwaZulu-Natal that private security only serves as a deterrent up to a point — the eventual life-or-death decision often needs to be made by the victims themselves.
The potential impact of the Draft Firearms Control Amendment Bill, which began its passage through the legislative process in May, therefore cannot be understated. The draft bill's deletion of sections 13 and 14 of the Firearms Control Act will make it illegal to possess a firearm for self-defence. Moreover, its amendment to section 91(2) of the Act, imposing a limitation on security services' and firearms trading providers' possession of more than 100 rounds of ammunition at any given time, will render the private security industry impotent.
It is worth noting that the KwaZulu-Natal police were assisted by the sport-shooting community during the dreadful days in question, in that sportshooters reloaded thousands of rounds so police could respond to the challenges they were facing. It is therefore evident that the police themselves were not, and are not, adequately armed to face the current challenges.
The legislation will give the state a monopoly on the effective use of firearms, forcing South Africans to rely solely on the police for protection and security. This even though the police’s current struggles are unlikely to be alleviated soon, with police departments suffering billions in budget cuts this fiscal year and further billions in cuts being planned over the next three years. The question that needs to be asked is why ministerial protection detail is bolstered during this same time? Surely they have recognised a growing and more imminent threat, so why would they leave us defenceless?
Not only will this unjustifiably limit citizens' fundamental rights to life and security, but will also lead to socioeconomic instability. No-one wants to live — let alone invest — in a place where their security is constantly under severe threat, without the ability to keep themselves safe. If the amendment were to come into force, companies and citizens with the means to do so will likely flee for safety overseas in unprecedented numbers. Many South Africans without the ability to emigrate will move capital offshore, fearing recession. This will lead to the extensive divestment of skills and capital from SA, compounding the severity of long-standing economic issues. As always, it will be the poor and unemployed who will suffer most.
The poor and unemployed have unfortunately become pawns in a violent struggle for power between political factions. They are quick to respond to calls for violence, since it may just grant a moment's reprieve from the incredible challenges they face daily. Last month’s civil unrest was a foreshadowing of how poverty and unemployment provide fertile ground for public violence. As economic deprivation worsens through unemployment and a strained fiscus, further public unrest will ensue. This will take place violently and cause further damage to the economy. This cycle of unrest leading to violence and economic damage, leading to more deprivation and thus more unrest, will send SA into an unstoppable downward spiral.
As the bill comes before parliament it is not only of crucial importance that our lawmakers consider the dire consequences to the safety and security of law-abiding, peace-loving South Africans, but the serious socioeconomic issues that will result. We need to enable and compliment the good legislation that is in place through exceptional administration from within the police, and in the process bring about a greater level of law and order. We have to successfully prosecute violent offenders, and we can only do this if we build up the police and prosecuting authorities' capacity and capabilities to enforce the law and prevent crime.
Of course, the simple solution is not often the easy solution. Hard work and serious political commitment will be required to address the police’s challenges and ensure South Africans are protected by a police service that is able to rid the country of violent crime.
• Van Niekerk is CEO at Outdoor Investment Holdings, the country’s largest importer, distributor and retailer of firearms and ammunition.
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Published by Arena Holdings and distributed with the Financial Mail on the last Thursday of every month except December and January.