A firearm amnesty that was meant to give a lifeline to gun owners with expired licences has ended, leaving many in the lurch due to SAPS red tape.
Under the amnesty, which began in August 2020 and ended on Sunday January 31, gun owners with expired licences could register their firearms, and those in illegal possession of one could either apply for a new licence or surrender illegal or unwanted firearms, firearm parts and ammunition to the police for destruction without fear of prosecution.
Colonel Brenda Muridili, spokeswoman for the national police commissioner General Khehla Sitole, told a daily newspaper that 40 729 firearms and 199 573 rounds of ammunition had been surrendered to the police by mid-January but that more were circulating.
Meadowridge businessman Errol Pearce has been struggling to register his firearm since 2015 when his licence expired while he was overseas.
Mr Pearce works from home and often has cash there, which means he needs to protect himself. So he has a gun.
Mr Pearce said he had taken his licence and all the necessary paperwork, in duplicate, to the firearm control officer at Diep River police station where, he said, he had been told everything was fine. But the renewed licence had failed to materialise despite him making repeated enquiries.
It was only after he was asked for his firearm licence card, he said, that it became apparent what had been causing the hold-up.
“Would you believe it? There was a printing error. The firearm is a Browing instead of Browning, and the prefix is incorrect and that the card will have to be sent to Pretoria for verification and change,” said Mr Pearce.
He was told by a gunsmith that the police had all weapons logged on computers at the station and they could have checked if the prefix was correct or not.
We contacted Diep River police numerous times about Mr Pearce’s case, but they did not respond to our questions other than to say that the amnesty had ended.
We also tried to contact General Sitole, and Police Minister Bheki Cele, who are responsible for the firearms registry, but received no response to our queries.
Westlake lawyer Damian Enslin, who specialises in firearm-related issues and is chairperson of the SA Gunowners’ Association (Saga), said the firearm amnesty had been plagued by numerous issues and problems.
“Mainly due to poor communication about the amnesty by the police to the general public, multiple and contradictory directives from the police head office, and poor communication within the police to its personnel on the implementation of the various directives,” said Mr Enslin.
Covid-19 had also had a huge impact on not just the general public’s access to the police, but on the police itself, with many officers being off on sick leave or stations closing or partially closing because of the virus, he said.
“All of which has created major problems for those firearm owners who are in possession of firearms with an expired licence and who wish to take advantage of the firearm amnesty. As a result of all these issues, Saga has written to the minister to request a further amnesty.“
Claire Taylor, a researcher with Gun Free SA, said the amnesty was announced days after the Supreme Court of Appeal (SCA) upheld firearm licence renewals as a cornerstone of gun control. However, the police and gun owners had failed South Africa by not supporting the 2020-21 amnesty, she said.
According to Ms Taylor, there are over 450 000 firearms for which licences have expired due to non-renewal.
“Assuming that 40 729 handed in to police are guns with expired licences, this is just 9% of the 450 000 firearms for which licences have expired. In its judgment, the SCA warns that there is a real risk that some or many of these firearms, which are now illegally in the possession of their owners, may be stolen or lost and end up in the hands of criminals who may injure or kill others,” said Ms Taylor.
The latest crime statistics showed that civilians were the largest source of illegal guns in South Africa, she said, reporting the loss or theft of 8 007 guns in 2019-20, an average of 24 guns a day, with police reporting losing two a day in that time.
Amnesties were effective, Ms Taylor, said, with over 2.1 million rounds of ammunition having been recovered in the past four amnesties with almost half of the 150 000 firearms recovered being illegally held.
“SAPS needs to act on its warning that as of February 1, those who are found to be in possession of illegal firearms, firearm parts and ammunition will be charged and processed accordingly acting against gun owners in illegal possession,” said Ms Taylor.
At the same time, she said, the presidency should urgently conduct an independent forensic audit of all firearm licences, permits and authorisations issued by the Central Firearms Registry over the past five years.
Under the July 23 2020 ruling, any gun owner who failed to renew his firearm licence before it expired is in illegal possession and could potentially face 15 years in prison.
Alan Martheze, of City Guns in Hout Street, said they had had hundreds of firearm owners calling in desperate for information on how to comply.
“In these violent times, people don’t want to forfeit their only means of self-defence to the state, and they’re trying to re-license them. Although the amnesty allows for this, the confusion and misdirection of those implementing the amnesty is the greatest stumbling block to success of this process,” said Mr Martheze.