South Africa’s current firearms regulatory framework consists of the Firearms Control Act (FCA) and its subsidiary legislation, which has been in place since 2004. This framework imposes strict substantive and procedural requirements for obtaining a competency certificate, license, permit, or authorization to possess a firearm, to deal in firearms, or to carry out other firearm-related activities, including running a firearms-training enterprise or a hunting business.
Some of these requirements are of universal application. For instance, a separate license must be issued for every firearm and applicants must obtain a competency certificate. To do so, an applicant should, among other things, be a “fit and proper person” with no recent conviction for certain crimes, be stable, and not have a proclivity for violence. Other requirements vary depending on the type and purpose of the specific license sought. For instance, a person wishing to obtain a license to possess a firearm for self-defense is required to demonstrate a need for the weapon and inability to achieve protection through other means. In addition, an eligible individual may obtain only one license of this class, which must be renewed every five years.
Limited, mostly secondary sources located for this report point to a decrease in firearms-related crimes since the FCA came into force, although none of the sources establish a direct causal effect.
South Africa has a comprehensive firearms-control regulatory regime in place. It consists of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (FCA) and its subsidiary legislation, the Firearms Control Regulations (FCA Regulations). Before these laws took effect in 2004, firearms were regulated through the Arms and Ammunition Act 75 of 1969 (the 1969 AAA). The designated regulatory authority is the National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS), which also functions as the National Commissioner of Registrar of Firearms (the Registrar).
This regulatory regime has put in place stringent substantive and procedural limits on obtaining firearms. It imposes a ban on certain firearms designated “prohibited” firearms except in very limited circumstances. It also imposes thorough requirements for obtaining a license for other firearms. For instance, a firearm for self-defense may be issued only if the applicant can demonstrate the need for a weapon and an inability to achieve protection through other means. A person who meets these standards can be issued only one license for a five-year term, which may be renewed if the licensee continues to show compliance with all applicable requirements. A person seeking a firearms license for dedicated sport shooting must be a member of an accredited hunting association.
All applications for a firearms license must be accompanied by a competency certificate, which is issued only after it has been determined that, among other things, the applicant does not have a proclivity for violence or a substance-abuse problem and he or she completes training on the safe and efficient handling of firearms. It also imposes equally strict rules on the safe custody of firearms.
The regulatory regime also imposes stringent requirements on dealers. Among the notable obligations is a duty to keep records on all firearms and ammunition in stock and all firearms that the dealer holds on behalf of licensees, as well as the duty to link these three registers to a national database established by the Registrar. A dealer must make available for inspection on request by any police official all firearms, ammunition, and records that he or she keeps.
The impact of the current regulatory framework on firearms-related crimes is hard to ascertain. This is in large part because the SAPS has not released adequate statistical information on the matter since the early 2000s. In addition, while the FCA has been in effect since 2004, it appears that various key provisions have been implemented in increments, with some parts, particularly certain provisions added to the FCA through a 2006 amendment, implemented recently and others not yet put into effect. However, limited, mostly secondary sources located for this report point to a decrease in firearms-related crimes since the FCA went into force, although none of them establish a direct causal effect.
Definition of Firearm
The FCA adopts a broad definition of “firearm,” which includes
any device that can “propel a bullet or projectile through a barrel or cylinder by means of burning propellant, at a muzzle energy exceeding 8 joules (6 ft-lbs)”;
anything with the capacity to “to discharge rim-fire, centre-fire or pin-fire ammunition”;
any device that can be “readily altered” to be any of the above-listed firearms;
any device designed to discharge any projectile of at least .22 calibre at a muzzle energy of more than 8 joules (6 ft-lbs), by means of compressed gas; or
any barrel, frame, or receiver of a device mentioned above.
However, the FCA excludes various devices that would otherwise be considered firearms under this definition. Explosive-powered tools designed for industrial application for splitting rocks or concrete, or for application in the mining or steel industry for removing refractory materials, are not considered firearms. Also not considered firearms are stun bolts used in slaughterhouses, antique firearms, air guns, tranquilizer firearms, paintball guns, flare guns, and deactivated firearms. In addition, the FCA authorizes the Minister of Safety and Security (the Minister) to exclude any other device.
The Right to Possess Firearms
In South Africa, the right to possess firearms is not guaranteed by law. The FCA imposes a general ban on the possession of firearms except in limited circumstances, and they may be possessed only with a license, permit, or authorization issued under the provisions of the FCA.
Certain firearms are categorized as prohibited firearms and cannot ordinarily be possessed or licensed under the FCA. These include any
(a) fully automatic firearm;
(b) gun, cannon, recoilless gun, mortar, light mortar or launcher manufactured to fire a rocket, grenade, self-propelled grenade, bomb, or explosive device;
(c) frame, body, or barrel of such a fully automatic firearm, gun, cannon, recoilless gun, mortar, light mortar, or launcher;
(d) projectile or rocket manufactured to be discharged from a cannon, recoilless gun or mortar, or rocket launcher;
(e) imitation of any device contemplated in paragraph (b), (c), excluding the frame, body, or barrel of a fully automatic firearm, or (d); or
(f) [altered firearm].
The FCA stipulates limited exceptions in which prohibited firearms may be licensed for private and public collections as well as for use in theatrical, film, or television productions. However, the FCA Regulations impose rigorous requirements that need to be met for the proper utilization of these exceptions.
The FCA also authorizes the Minister to add any firearm to the prohibited firearms category if doing so is “in the interest of public safety or desirable for the maintenance of law and order.”