Fixing the Firearms Control Act

The Firearms Control Act of 2000, which was forced upon the SAPS and South African gun owners, is clearly not working the way its architects intended it to. The system is onerous, opaque, overly complex, and places such a strain on SAPS resources and manpower as to be nearly impossible to implement effectively. These same inherent flaws in the FCA also leave it vulnerable to exploitation and corruption, culminating in unacceptable incidents such as police officials leaking firearms handed in during the previous amnesty period to criminals. I bemoaned this failure of the FCA hardly two months ago. Clearly it is now up to South African firearm owners and the SAPS to work together to fix a broken system that they were saddled with against their will.

The current method of individually licencing each and every firearm is inefficient and places a significant burden upon police resources and personnel. The process of a single citizen licencing a firearm requires the unnecessary duplication of paperwork, and this entire process must be repeated as if it were a first time application whenever the licence is renewed. Considering that South Africa has around 3 million gun owners, the strain placed on the SAPS is significant. The solution to this and many other shortcomings inherent to the system is to licence the firearm owner as a person, and then register their firearms on a national registry like we already have.

It is a similar concept to holding a type of driver’s licence, and then registering the cars you acquire with the State. This is possible within the existing framework of the FCA and requires select amendments to the law, as opposed to having to scrap and rewrite whole swathes of legislation. The registry does not have to be administered by the SAPS, but can become the responsibility of another state department. The police is then tasked only with regulating the system and enforcing the FCA. This is not an alien concept considering how effectively SARS and law enforcement work together in matters regarding taxation.

The existing requirement that prospective firearm owners must complete a firearm competency course is desirable, and can be expanded to form the foundation of a firearm owner licence in conjunction with the required character references and criminal background checks. There are international examples of personal licencing and firearm registration that work effectively, one being the United Kingdom’s use of a Shotgun Certificate: a person goes through an application process to acquire a Shotgun Certificate, and all shotguns that are then purchased are recorded on the certificate. There is no limit to the amount of shotguns or ammunition that a Shotgun Certificate holder may buy. It is interesting to note that in the period stretching from May 2012 to April 2013 violent crimes in the UK involving shotguns only accounted for 6% of total offences committed with firearms. Criminals do not acquire firearms through legal channels, so this statistic is not unexpected.

With regards to how we could implement such a reform, there are numerous possible avenues to explore. The Central Firearms Registry (CFR) already has an online component. This can be expanded so that whenever a licence holder makes a firearm purchase, the dealer can immediately determine whether the person is allowed to buy that specific firearm or not. If the purchase is allowed the dealer can then and there register the firearm under the purchaser’s name, with all the relevant details immediately reflecting on the registry.

The authorities are thus immediately notified of the acquisition, the process being completely transparent, but without unnecessary paperwork. This transfer of responsibility will free up SAPS manpower currently inefficiently utilised in dealing with excessive paperwork pertaining to licence applications and other bureaucratic procedures, which can then be redeployed to audit and inspect firearm owners and dealers to ensure and enforce compliance with the law. It also places the onus on individual firearm owners and associations to ensure that they meet the prescribed requirements. This delegation of responsibility and element of self-regulation is much desired, and I believe it will be warmly welcomed by firearm owners and organisations.

With improved compliance, enforcement and transparency it will become much harder for corrupt practices to take root, and transgressors can be swiftly dealt with in accordance with the law. Reforming the system will also signal a move towards closer cooperation and mutually beneficial relations between firearm owners and the South African Police Service. South African gun owners are here to stay, and we want a system that is practical, efficient and workable. We are ready and willing to rise to the occasion and do our part to ensure that this becomes a reality.