On 11 January this year, the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa formally announced the launch of a firearm amnesty, which will be in place until 11 April 2010. The main aim of the amnesty process is to encourage those individuals that possess illegal firearms and ammunition to surrender such items to the South African Police Service (SAPS). However, the extent to which this amnesty process will significantly reduce firearm-related crime and violence in South Africa remains a moot point.
Firearm amnesties have been implemented in numerous countries including Angola, Australia, Brazil, Liberia, Sierra Leone, the Solomon Islands and even the US. In some contexts complete or "blanket" amnesty from criminal prosecution was provided to those individuals that surrendered firearms and ammunition. In other contexts, only limited amnesty was granted, such as in relation to the crime of illegal possession of firearms and ammunition. Some amnesty processes have also been incentivised with those individuals that surrender firearms receiving cash or goods (such as bicycles and farming equipment) in exchange for firearms and ammunition. Cash-based incentive processes however have largely become discredited as they have the potential to encourage a brisker illicit trade in firearms.
Evidence linking firearms amnesties to reductions in violent crime is scarce, largely because there are numerous variables and context specific factors that contribute to the occurrence and non-occurrence of crime. For example, in 2005 a six month firearm amnesty was implemented throughout South Africa by the SAPS in which approximately 100,000 firearms were collected. Since 2006 there has been a noticeable reduction in recorded firearm-related deaths in South Africa, but this downward trend began in 2001 and has also been linked to other violence reduction processes initiated by the government and civil society groups. There is a strong possibility that 2005 amnesty process had a positive impact on reducing firearm deaths, but to date this relationship is very difficult to prove. However, the key impact of firearm amnesties is that they can bring about a major reduction in the number of firearms that can potentially be used to commit crime.
In the case of the current firearm amnesty in South Africa, those persons that surrender illegal firearms and ammunition to the SAPS will not be prosecuted for unlawful possession of those firearms and/or ammunition. Nonetheless, in order to be considered for amnesty, those individuals in question are required to complete an application form in which they provide the SAPS with their name, identification number, residential address and details of the firearm and ammunition. No immunity for other firearm-related crimes will be provided. For example, if a surrendered firearm is linked to a murder (by means of ballistic testing) then the individual who surrendered the firearm may be charged with murder by the SAPS. Hence, it is unlikely that substantial number of firearms that have been used to commitment crimes such as murder, assault and robbery will be surrendered the police. However, the amnesty process may encourage a significant number of persons who have inherited or acquired firearms that are no longer licensed and that they not longer wish to retain (and hence may be vulnerable to theft) to hand-in these firearms to the police.
This amnesty process, by implication, also appears to have a secondary objective, namely to provide a relicensing opportunity to those firearm owners that missed the compulsory deadline of 30 June 2009 to renew their firearm licences. Those individuals that possess unlicensed firearms (in terms of the Firearms Control Act) have the option of applying for licences for those firearms that they surrender to the SAPS. However, such individuals are required to meet stringent competency criteria, which are outlined in the South African Firearms Control Act.
Written by: Guy Lamb, Senior Research Fellow, Arms Management Programme, ISS