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Thursday, 12 October, 2000, 16:35 GMT 17:35 UK
SA targets guns

By Carolyn Dempster in South Africa

South Africa's parliament has approved a controversial new gun law which places stricter controls on legal firearm owners in a bid to curb violent crime.

Safety and Security Minister Steve Tshwete told MPs the Firearms Control Bill 2000 aimed to achieve "strict and efficient gun control, without sacrificing the legitimate needs of citizens to possess a firearm.

The new Firearms Control Bill is a milestone in the criminal justice system of South Africa.

It introduces a new era in the battle against violent crime," he added.

But critics of the bill, including three opposition parties under the umbrella of the Democratic Alliance claim the law targets law-abiding citizens and will deprive them of their right to self-defence.

The new law will:

  • prevent anyone under 21 from owning a gun;
  • limit the number of firearms for the purposes of self-defence to one per person;
  • force gun owners to undergo a competency test and prove they need a firearm;
  • make gun owners re-license their weapon every five years.

The minister has been given sweeping powers to proclaim certain areas, like schools, gun-free zones, and to prohibit certain categories of weapons, while the police have new wide-ranging search and seizure powers.

The penalties are particularly stiff, ranging from a R100 000 ($13,500) fine up to 25 years imprisonment.

Emotional debate

During an emotional and stormy passage through parliament, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, leader of the New National Party said the bill "would not take one illegal firearm out of the hands of the criminals".

man with gun
Many believe guns will protect them from crime
He added that the R1bn ($135m) set aside for implementation of the new law would be better spent on "providing 8000 more police officers to patrol our streets and to combat crime on the front line."

Although professional hunters and shooters will be allowed an unlimited number of firearms for their sport, the pro-gun lobby say the bureaucratic nature of the law will put off professional hunters eager to come to South Africa in search of the big five; elephant, lion, buffalo, leopard, rhino, and prepared to spend big bucks to bag them.

Thrill and fury

Alex Holmes, chairman of the National Firearms Forum which represents some two million gun owners is furious that his members have become an easy target of government:

Guns in South Africa
5m legal
1m illegal
12,000 gun deaths in 1998
"All you are doing by restricting legal ownership of firearms is disarming the victims of crime. You are not addressing the true problem. The true problem are those people who set out in the morning to murder, rape and pillage."

But Sheena Duncan, president of Gun Free South Africa is thrilled that the law has finally gone through after almost a year of debate."

The police say that one of the major sources of illegal firearms in the country is the loss and theft of legally owned firearms.

Therefore the reasoning is that if you can bring down the number of licensed firearms, make sure they are in the hands of responsible people, it will help to cut off one of the supplies of illegal arms".

The bill will be phased in over five years, allowing gun owners time to re-apply for their licenses.

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See also:

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South Africa's crime crisis
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