On Sunday 25 October 2009 at a political rally in Limpopo province, South African President Jacob Zuma publicly raised concerns about the number of firearms in the hands of private citizens. In a move that is sure to anger the pro-gun lobby, Zuma suggested that a review of legislation governing firearm ownership was necessary in light of the country's crime challenges and the number of legally owned firearms stolen from citizens. President Zuma's comments were made in the context of the recent conclusion of a nationwide civilian firearms license renewal process, and legal action against the state by certain firearm owners and firearm interest groups in relation to the consequences of this renewal process.
In recent research exploring the dynamics of house robberies and robbers, Dr. Rudolph Zinn of Unisa found that 97% of respondents used firearms in the commission of their crime. More than half of these perpetrators reported personally stealing licenced firearms.
Although over the past nine years South Africans have seen a general decline in overall levels of crime, the categories of business robberies, house robberies, and car hijacking have all increased considerably. Due to their violent and interpersonal nature, government views this "trio" of crimes as disproportionately responsible for citizen perceptions and fear of crime, and has thus prioritized them. It is not surprising that according to the SAPS, firearms were used in the commission of 87% of business robberies, 77% of house robberies and 57% of street robberies in the 2008/09 financial year.
Firearms also play a significant role in murder in South Africa. Research into murder trends conducted by the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation in 2008 found 54% of 1149 murders were committed using firearms. This trend mirrors data in the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System which show that 53% of murders between 2000-2004 were committed using firearms.
It has previously been found that between 1994 and 2003, a staggering 208 090 firearms were lost by, or stolen from licensed gun owners. However, the number of firearms stolen or lost year-on-year has decreased steadily since 1999. This is likely the result of improvements in legislation and has seen government clamp down on firearm regulation and ownership.
In 2004 the Firearms Control Act came into effect leading to a massive process of reapplication for firearm licenses and the relinquishing of thousands of firearms into SAPS custody. Part of this process included a firearm amnesty period in 2005 during which 100 006 firearms were collected, 53 435 of which were illegally possessed by the owners. The Firearms Control Act has been criticized by the pro-gun lobby for impeding the rights of citizens to defend themselves.
The implementers of the Firearms Control Act are the SAPS, mandated both with seizing and destroying illegal firearms, as well as managing the firearm licensing process. It is difficult to gauge the current effectiveness of the SAPS in addressing illegal firearms. On the one hand the national police body appear to be winning the battle against illegal firearms. Statistics released by the SAPS in September suggest that more firearms were recovered (13 675) in the 2008/09 financial year than were lost (12 883). This 106% recovery rate is up from 85% in 2007/08.
However, earlier in 2008, the then Ministry of Safety and Security revealed in parliament that 8 286 previously recovered firearms were lost by the SAPS in the past three years. Only 900 of these were recovered. Additionally, between April and March 2008 the SAPS had 329 state firearms stolen and lost another 183. Theft and loss of high caliber weapons such as the R-series rifles are of particular concern as these are increasingly used in unison with AK47s in brazen cash heists and business robberies. Ironically state weapons in the hands of criminals are increasingly responsible for the deaths of SAPS members to whom they are meant to be issued.
For the pro-gun lobby a gun-free South African is inconceivable - unattainable without the death of tens of thousands of innocents deprived of their right to defend themselves. For the anti-gun lobby a reduction in the number of firearms in South Africa is central to creating a safe society where there is no need for anyone to carry a firearm. President Zuma's recent utterances suggest a leaning towards the latter. An analysis of crime trends suggests he should be supported and encouraged in this brave move.
At least for the foreseeable future the limited possession of licensed firearms will have to be tolerated, while efforts at finding and ridding our society of guns in the illegal pool should must continue. At the same time, licensed gun owners should be held accountable for negligent loss of firearms or for not protecting their firearms in the manner prescribed by law.
Written by: Andrew Faull, Researcher, Crime and Justice Programme, ISS Pretoria