Up in arms: Planned changes to gun ownership laws divide South Africans

If proposed amendments to South African firearm ownership laws are approved, it will be illegal to own a gun for self-defence. This has prompted heated public debate and submissions to the Police Ministry. Eyewitness News looks at both sides of the issue.

A spent shell leaves a pistol fired by a woman as she takes part in training organised by the women empowerment group Girls on Fire, in Midrand, on 7 February 2021. Picture: MARCO LONGARI/AFP

CAPE TOWN - The Police Ministry has already received more than 85,000 submissions on the proposed amendments to the firearms bill.

The Firearms Control Amendment Bill 2021 replaces the previous bill that was submitted to Cabinet in February 2015.

Two weeks ago, the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service published a call for public comment on the bill.

The proposed amendments have reopened the perennial debate on firearm ownership and sparked outrage among gun owners.

The Firearms Control Amendment Bill has gun owners, opposition political parties, and civic organisations up in arms.

Amongst other things, it seeks to prohibit the issuing of licences for firearms bought for self-defence.

Some have described it as 'madness', 'idiotic' and 'reckless'.

Police Minister Bheki Cele disagrees, saying that the amendments aren't an attempt to disarm citizens, but rather an attempt to build a safer South Africa.

Unlike the US constitution, our founding document does not enshrine the right to own or bear arms.

GUN OWNERSHIP 'A PRIVILEGE'

Gun Free South Africa has welcomed the proposed amendments, underlining the fact that in this country, owning a firearm is a privilege, not a right.

“It’s very clear. It’s unambiguous and revolves around reducing the number of guns in circulation in this country. So globally that’s called non-proliferation and so the amendments are aligning South Africa with its legal obligations as well as global norms,” said the organisation's Adele Kirsten.

“But it’s also very clear that they have looked at what the scientific evidence is around controlling weapons.”

Kirsten's organisation gave input into the amendments, including research suggesting that cutting back on legal gun ownership would lower the level of violence.

“The evidence is overwhelming and that has to be the focus. Can this law help us reduce gun deaths?

“For us, that seems to be quite a driving force here,” said Kirsten.

GUN OWNERS: DATA IS FLAWED

But gun owners say this is rubbish.

Gun Owners of South Africa chairperson Paul Oxley said the research just wasn't applicable.

“What is quite awkward is that the SAPS has no data whatsoever except the data that has been sent to them by Gun Free South Africa and one or two others. The problem is that this data is completely flawed. They keep talking about what the research shows and international norms and standards, but it’s all rubbish,” said Oxley.

“None of it refers or relates to South Africa. South Africa is a sovereign republic. We are not subject to international norms and standards and our Constitution guarantees us the right to life.”

And Oxley believes that as an extension to that right, citizens have the right to defend life.

MIXED VIEWS

The issue of gun ownership is always divisive, even more so in a nation that suffers from very high murder rates, and contact crime rates.

And the proposed amendments have again sparked debate among the average South African.

“In the locations there are too many crooks and skollies. If you are going to work, you are scared, waking up in the morning you are fearful," said a Cape Town woman.

"So if I had the opportunity to buy a gun, I would. If you are using a gun for self-defence, I don’t think it’s fair for it to be taken away from you.”

Similarly, a man told Eyewitness News that if he could afford a gun, he would buy one.

“When are the police going to come? If you have a gun, you can defend yourself.”

A second man said: “We can’t allow this. This is totally wrong of the government to come back at us now for failing the people out there. They can’t handle the crime that is happening with firearms in the Western Cape or Johannesburg, and all over South Africa. Now they think banning firearms will stop this thing.”

However, another man Eyewitness News spoke to said he wouldn’t buy a firearm as it was dangerous.

Feeling anxious about crime is commonplace in South Africa, and as one Capetonian man explained, after coming face to face with criminals during a home invasion in 2016 – during which the family was tied up and threatened with firearms – he decided to buy a gun.

“I felt pretty worthless and from that, I knew I was going to get a firearm just so I could protect myself if I was ever put in a situation like that again. I haven’t had to use my firearm, but I would rather have a firearm and not need it, than not have a firearm and need it.”

WORTH THE RISK?

Gun Free South Africa acknowledged many people felt more secure with a weapon, but are they actually safer?

“We are there to provide information and evidence that demonstrates that it’s more risky," said Kirsten

"The second is to say have you thought of the alternatives? What else can you do to improve your safety? A gun in a home poses risks for all members in the household.

"So as Gun Free South Africa, we are saying confront the evidence, is it worth the risk? And only you as an individual can answer that.”

Gun Owners of South Africa said while the proposed ban on licences for personal protection weapons was ridiculous, there were likely to be far broader effects.

“It’s going to touch every aspect of firearm ownership. It’s going to kill sports shooting. It’s going to kill the hunting industry. It’s going to kill the private security industry.

"If self-defence is no longer a reason for owning a firearm, that means there is no rationale for having armed security guards. There is also no rationale for having policemen armed because the only reason policemen carry guns is for self-defence,” said Oxley.

Last week the Democratic Alliance (DA) launched a petition against the bill, and according to the party, it already had 65,000 signatures.

Action Society and DearSA are also running public participation processes on the matter.

The public has until 4 July to comment.

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