OPINION | Marco van Niekerk: Gun Control Bill: The practicalities of civilian disarmament

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Marco van Niekerk writes that the possibility of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill becoming law should concern every South African, whether they own a gun or not. Van Niekerk breaks down his concerns with the Bill.

The Firearms Control Amendment Bill, which began its passage into law earlier this year, will remove South Africans' ability to licence a firearm for self-defence. Because of its restrictions on private security companies, the Bill will also render this industry impotent, unable to provide meaningful protection. All South Africans will be utterly dependent on the police for their safety and security unless they are willing to become criminals themselves. 

South Africa is indisputably one of the most violent societies in the world.

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.

The South African Police Service (SAPS) is severely under-capacitated, dysfunctional in many ways, and cannot make a meaningful change in the unacceptably high crime levels. There is also no clear plan to get policing back on track, with billions in budget cuts planned over the next three years likely to make the situation worse, not better.

The possibility of the Bill becoming law should concern every South African, whether they own a gun or not. However, while much has been written on the moral, legal, and socioeconomic issues inherent in the Bill, it seems no one has adequately considered how the legislation will be practically implemented. What will disarming legal, self-defence firearm owners in South Africa actually look like? 

READ | Guy Lamb: Gun control in South Africa: Tightening the law and more

According to the latest available estimates, there are 5,4 million civilian-held legal and illicit firearms in South Africa. Of these, approximately 3 million (56%) are legally licenced, to just under 2 million owners. When the Act comes into force, these legal firearm owners will be forced to choose: hold on to their firearms and become criminals or surrender their firearms to the police for destruction as part of an amnesty programme. 

South Africans, especially those in rural areas, believe (for a good reason) that owning a firearm for self-defence is a matter of life and death. Considering that SAPS is unlikely to undergo a serious overhaul overnight and effective private security will now be unavailable, owning a firearm will not cease to be a matter of life and death when the Act comes into force. Many peace-loving South Africans will make the difficult choice to continue protecting themselves from violent crime with a firearm, even though they will themselves be committing a criminal act. 

Gun Free South Africa, a small but vocal group, have been the main driving force behind civilian disarmament in the country. They argue that if there are fewer legal guns, there will be fewer illegal guns too; we will all be better off just relying on the police for protection. This might sound appealing in theory, but it simply does not accord to the reality in South Africa. 

Overwhelmed police force 

The recent civil unrest in KZN and Gauteng saw SAPS becoming quickly overwhelmed, unable to defend communities against violent looting, destruction and loss of life. SAPS, in many instances, relied on legally licenced private gun owners and private security to prevent all-out, irreversible destruction. Indeed, it was interesting to note the absence of GFSA in KZN during this time. Ostensibly, it was the perfect opportunity to show the citizens of SA how one could peacefully resolve these situations without firearms, simply relying on the police. 

When the Bill comes into effect, more optimistic South Africans — perhaps hoping that GFSA is correct in its view that civilian disarmament will lead to a reduction in violent crime — will hand in their firearms to the police during an amnesty period. This will be no different from the firearms amnesties held periodically in which people can apply to SAPS for the destruction of an illegal or unwanted firearm, without fear of prosecution. 

While 165 675 illegal and/or unwanted firearms were surrendered to SAPS in the two amnesty periods between 2019 and 2021, only 20 439 — a mere 12% of the recently surrendered weapons — were destroyed. This, added to the backlog from previous amnesty periods, means that hundreds of thousands of firearms are in SAPS's possession. 

READ | Opinion: Terence Corrigan: Amendments to firearm act: No price for being wrong

If SAPS currently lacks the capacity to destroy the hundreds of thousands of weapons that are handed in in each amnesty period — even before the billions in planned policing budget cuts — it is unlikely to increase this capacity when the Act comes into force. Up to 3 million firearms will have to be safely destroyed, drastically adding to the backlog. The result will be several millions of firearms sitting in SAPS's possession for years. 

Guns stolen from police stations 

In response to a Parliamentary question in late August, Police Minister Bheki Cele admitted that, in the past two years, ten separate police stations have been victims of firearm and/or ammunition robberies. These include large stations such as the Johannesburg Central Police Station, the Hillbrow Police Station, and the Pretoria Central Police Station. The SAPS were unable to say how many firearms were stolen in these robberies. Furthermore, the Minister admitted that 265 firearms were stolen from the possession of officers outside of police stations in 2019/2020, and 289 in 2020/2021. 

When the legal sale of desirable goods is banned (think alcohol and cigarettes during lockdown), the price of those goods skyrockets. When the Act is passed, a black-market will begin to flourish, and SAPS is unlikely to be able to suppress it. The financial incentive to rob police stations and SAPS stores for firearms — and for corrupt officers to sell firearms to criminals — will be higher than ever before. Firearms will go missing from SAPS custody in unprecedented numbers, making their way into criminal hands where they will threaten the safety of disarmed civilians, unprotected by private security. 

READ | Opinion: Jonathan Deal: Rather than disarming legal gun owners, improve policing and justice

Proponents have argued that the Bill will address South Africa's high crime rates by preventing the proliferation of firearms in criminal hands. However, with SAPS's limited capacity to keep South Africans safe and its proven inability to look after the firearms in its own possession, the Bill will have precisely the opposite effect. 

Hard work and commitment needed 

Unfortunately, there is no quick legislative fix that will address our country's staggering rates of crime. Our firearms control legislation is already regarded by many as an example of global best practice. Rather than amending it, we need to enable the legislation already in place by improving administrative capacity within SAPS and improving their ability to maintain law and order. This is especially so, considering the more than 125 000 jobs sustained by hunting and firearms retail, which will be lost overnight

Hard work and serious political commitment will be required to address SAPS's challenges and ensure that South Africans are protected by a police force that can rid the country of violent crime and keep everyone safe. Until this is our reality, however, taking self-defence firearms and protection from private security out of the hands of law-abiding South Africans is a terrible idea. 

- Marco van Niekerk is CEO of Outdoor Investment Holdings, the largest importer, distributor and retailer of civilian firearms and ammunition in South Africa. 

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