ORAL SUBMISSION ON THE FIREARMS CONTROL AMENDMENT BILL [812-2006]
GUN FREE SOUTH AFRICA

Introduction

Gun Free South Africa is a non-government organisation that since 1994 bas sought to take practical steps to help build a safe and more secure nation by reducing the number of guns in circulation.

We welcome the publication of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill [B122006] and see it as a necessary review of the Firearms Control Act [No 60 of 2000] . We thank the Portfolio Committee on Safety and Security for offering us and other members of the public this opportunity to make comments on the Bill.

Need for strict gun control

Globally, South Africa is recognized as having an extraordinary level of gun violence. Police statistics tell us that between 1994 and 2003 we have seen

 

         Over 104,000 gun-related homicides

         Almost one million (983,627) aggravated robberies reported to the police


This bas led to widespread traumatisation of victims and witnesses of gun-related crime and violence.

Gun violence has resulted in the diversion or loss of key resources.

 

         As health resources are diverted into trauma wards and the short term and long term treatment of gun shot wounds

 

         As government and private resources are transferred into safety and security:

 

        Police budgets rose from R13.8 billion in 1998/9 to 24.2 billion in R2004/5 in large part in response to the growth of violent crime.

 

        The private security industry had a meteoric rise and grew in value from R1.2 billion in 1990 to R13 billion in 2000.

 

        The Banking Council reported that it alone spent R 1 billion in 1998 to install and maintain security devices to protect banks from armed robberies

 

         In the worst cases, the delivery of services is disrupted: schools, clinics, ambulance services, housing projects

 

         The economy has lost labour, labour hours and labour skills.

 

Gun violence also has had profound social costs.

 

         Young men - the most common victims of gun violence - playa strategic role as the fathers of young families and family wage earners. In the most extreme instances, this results in the breaking apart of families.

 

         Many suffer post traumatic stress syndrome, which can lead to deep psychological problems and create a generational cycle of violence

 

         The growth of fear and social isolation particularly in high-risk communities has sapped "social capital".


These effects are very harmful for our young democracy, gripped as it is with the challenges of social transformation and economic growth.

Since the publication of the National Crime Prevention Strategy, our government has built a comprehensive framework to deal with gun violence. The Firearms Control Act is one, central part of this strategy. By promoting responsible gun ownership, combating illegal guns, and reducing the proliferation of firearms, it plays a major role in crime prevention. All signs are that the new law has begun to have profound effects.

We urge the Portfolio Committee to ensure that the amendment process shores up and strengthens the law rather than weakening it.

Overview

We support the Firearms Control Amendment Bill because it makes real efforts to enhance the Firearms Control Act.

Support for the amendment bill

First, a number of amendments seek to strengthen gun control. These include:

 

         Substituting the term "muzzle loader" for "antique gun" in section 1 and a number of follow on clauses;

 

         Requiring that a person get a competency certificate before obtaining a muzzle loading gun in section 2 and follow on clauses;

 

         Prohibiting silencers in section 3(a);

 

         Improving the process for applying for guns in private collections in section 11. We particularly appreciate the inclusion of the inclusion of the South African Heritage Resources Authority in the process.

 

         Requiring that collectors disable prohibited firearms in private and public collections in sections 11 and 12;

 

         Improving or adding presumptions to deal with negligent loss of guns or safe keys sections 32 and 33;

 

Second, a number of amendments seek to create a more efficient and effective system of administering the law.

 

         Section 9 links the period of validity of a competency certificate to the period of validity of the licence to which it is linked

 

         Section 23 routes export permits through the National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC)

 

         Section 24 requires the police to investigate whether a person should be declared unfit if he or she has paid an admission of guilt fine

 

         Section 24 improves in the kinds of evidence allowed at s 103 unfitness hearings.


We support these sections of the amendment bill.

Proposed amendments

However, the Bill also contains sections that we believe might weaken or undermine strict gun control measures in the law. We would like to suggest to the Portfolio Committee possible amendments and new provisions that might end this problem or indeed strengthen the law

Competency certificates

To us, one cornerstone of the Firearms Control Act is the competency certificate, because it allows the police to exclude people from getting gun licences who should not have them.

With this in mind, we ask the Portfolio Committee to delete section 1(f) of the Bill, which would narrow the definition of "fit and proper". We recall that during the original discussions on the Firearms Control Act, the Portfolio Committee fully considered its inclusion in the list of criteria for obtaining a competency certificate set out in section 9(2). The Portfolio Committee agreed to include it in the list because it gave the police discretion in cases where a person was clearly unfit to possess a firearm, but not for the reasons set out in that section. We believe that the police still need this discretionary power to protect the South African public.

In light of research conducted by the Medical Research Council and others, we offer to the committee for its consideration the following proposed amendments.

 

         First, that the age limit for obtaining a competency certificate be lifted to 25

 

         Second, that anyone who is subject of a permanent protection order under the Domestic Violence Act be excluded from obtaining a competency certificate

 

         Third, that applications be suspended, when the applicant is the subject of a temporary protection order.


Licences

Section 15 would extend the period of business licences. We are particularly concerned about the last category of these licences because it relates to security companies. It would extend their licence periods from two to five years.

Our concerns are two-fold. First, the industry is unstable.

 

The number of security officers has constantly grown . The number of security companies has vacillated:

 

         4437 in 1997

 

         5591 in 2001

 

         4639 in 2005 (Financial Mail, 23 June 2006)

Second, the PSIRA has reported to this Portfolio Committee that its inspections have uncovered hundreds of cases where private security companies have not complied with the law, including the law as it applies to firearms.

The Firearms Control Act has provisions for disposing of firearms when a business closes, but the short licence period serves as a safeguard, to make sure security companies account for their firearms when their licences come up for renewal.

A second issue relating to licensing is the licensing of gun dealers. The placement of gun shops in a community is a highly emotive issue, particularly in communities that experience high levels of gun violence. In light of this, we ask the Portfolio Committee to consider whether gun dealers should undergo the same process of community consultation as liquor dealers.

Renewals

We see renewals as another key cornerstone of the law. With this in mind, we ask the committee to consider deleting sections 10A and part of section 15 of the amendment bill.

To begin with, much of section 10A contains the kind of detail that belongs in regulations.

We are particularly concerned about sections 10A(5) and 10A(7).

Section 10A(5) would effectively allow the police to approve a renewal application with doing a background check. This could undermine the value of the certificate. While a person might be fit to possess a firearm when he or she first applies for a competency certificate, any number of factors can lead that person to become unfit to possess a firearm by the time he or she applies to renew the certificate five or ten years later: stress, job loss, exposure or involvement in domestic violence, alcoholism or drug addiction, amongst others. This might not be picked up from the application or the interview with the applicant, alone. The police should repeat the background check.

Section 10A(7) would allow the person to renew a competency certificate without any refresher training. This training is critical, not only to ensure the person retains basic skills, but also that he or she is kept up to date with changes in the law.

Declarations of unfitness

There is a very strong feeling amongst many non-government organisations that deal with domestic violence that declarations of unfitness should last in perpetuity, although a window period could be created where the person could demonstrate that he or she is no longer unfit to possess a firearm. We ask that the Portfolio Committee consider this suggestion.

Arms exports

GFSA strongly supports section 23 which would require that the NCACC issue export permits. We believe that a few additions to this section, however, might improve its efficacy.

First, a number of firearms are carried over the border - and so technically "exported" - by private firearm owners who intend to use their guns for personal reasons - to hunt or for self-protection. It might be best if this kind of permit were handled by the SAPS and not the NCACC - which is taken up with proper arms transfers. A separate category exists in the regulations for this type of permit, but the Portfolio Committee might want to consider whether a similar distinction needs to be made in the law.

Second, the Portfolio Committee might want to consider whether a key provisions in the National Conventional Arms Control Committee Act (No 41 of 2002) could be carried over into the Firearms Control Act including:

 

         Brokering

 

         End-user certificates

 

         Principles guiding export approvals.


Rebuttal: renewals versus audits

Presenters have proposed that the system of firearm licence renewals be replaced by a firearm audit.

We believe that the firearm licence renewal system currently in the law offers a far more effective and efficient system. This is for two reasons.

First, the Central Firearms Register needs to have accurate and up to date records of firearm licences. A police audit of firearm licences in one station area showed that the firearm licences were very inaccurate, because people had provided the wrong information on their application, they did not inform the police when they moved, or when their firearm had been lost or stolen, or when the firearm owner had died. This situation must to be corrected.

There are two basic options for maintaining accurate records: either the police take responsibility for going out to check each individual licences, or individual firearm owners become responsible for renewing their licences. The second option is the only feasible solution. This means that individual licence holders must be required to regularly renew their firearm licences, to ensure that police records are kept accurate and up to date.

Second, presenters have asked that existing firearm licence holders be allowed to retain the guns allowed them under the old Arms and Ammunitions Act.

We oppose this suggestion for two reasons. First, it would put in place a dual system, where one group of people are allowed up to 14 firearms for unspecified reasons (as allowed under the Arms and Ammunitions Act) and another group who obtain only restricted numbers of firearms under the new law. This would put in place a system that would be cumbersome and unfair.

At the same time, one of the key functions of the Firearms Control Act is to slow the proliferation of firearms. Since 1995, the police have linked the growth of violent crime to access to firearms. Illegal guns are of diverse origins. However, it is clear that civilian firearms are a significant source. Police statistics show that between 1994 and 2003, 208,000 guns were reported lost or stolen from private citizens. The Small Arms Survey reports that South African statistics, here, are "especially dramatic" (Small Arms Survey 2004, p. 63) and given "At the most recently published theft and loss rates, the chance that anyone of these guns would be reported lost was one in 160 every year." While the police may recover a good number of firearms, the remainder very likely flow into the illegal pool.

This places real, practical constraints on how we issue gun licences. It urges that we move away from a culture of entitlement and towards a culture of social responsibility, where firearm licences are only issued to people who can demonstrate need.

Conclusion

We would like to conclude by thanking the Portfolio Committee for allowing us this opportunity of presenting our views and by wishing it great strength and wisdom as it deals with this critical issue.

References

Keegan, M (2005). The Proliferation of Firearms in South Africa, 1994-2003. Johannesburg: Gun Free South Africa.

Masuku, S. (2003) "For Better and For Worse: South African Crime Trends in 2002," SA Crime Quarterly, (Institute for Security Studies), 3 (March 2003),p.17.

Small Arms Survey 2004. Geneva: Graduate Institute of International Studies.