Gun Control and Gun Amnesty: briefing by Minister

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10 June 2005
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Meeting Summary

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Meeting report


10 June 2005

Ms M. Sotyu

Relevant documents:
Summary from ‘International Meeting on the Regulation of Civilian Ownership and Use of Small Arms’ (see Appendix)

The Minister briefed the Committee on gun control, the private security regulatory authority and gun amnesty. The Firearms Appeal Board had been appointed to review firearm registration appeals. Members of the Private Security Industry Regulatory Council had been appointed although the Chairperson had since resigned. His replacement would need to be approved by Cabinet. The Minister reported that South Africans had responded positively to the gun amnesty and the police had been helped in confiscating illegal arms.

Members' concerns included the slow process of firearm registration, the possible investigation of people who had military weapons, steps taken to control illegal cross border trade on arms and the poor communication strategy around the re-registration of firearms.

The Chair announced that due to the joint sitting to say farewell to the outgoing Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court, the meeting would of necessity be shortened.

Mr Charles Nqakula, the Minister of Safety and Security, talked about the new Firearms Appeal Board that had been in place since January 2005. It was comprised of people with a legal background; there was retired judge Joshua Khumalo (the Board chairperson), Advocate Sindile Majokweni, Ms Zanele Nhlayisa and Mr Patrick Mongwe who was a magistrate and a former public prosecutor. A vacancy existed as a candidate had not been willing to relocate to Pretoria. The Minister hoped to fill the vacant post with a woman candidate, as stipulated by the Employment Equity. When the Board started working, they had found more than 15 106 appeals outstanding. Those appeals were supposed to have been processed in a timely manner rather than be allowed to pile up. The Board was now looking at those outstanding appeals in terms of the old Act and new appeals that related to the current Act. The Minister suggested that the Portfolio Committee invite the Board to brief them about the nature of their work.

He continued that there was a belief in some quarters that South Africa was the only country with gun control laws. In reality SA gun control laws might not be as strict as other countries in the world. At an international meeting held from 16 to 18 March 2005 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, convened to discuss means of combating the illicit trade of firearms. All the resolutions taken at that meeting were the same gun control measures as in South Africa.

One of the resolutions stated that civilians should be restricted from acquiring arms designed for military use rifles. Another resolution was that, people with a criminal record should not be allowed to own firearms. He gave the example of the Hamilton case where the government has been held for the negligent issuing of a firearm licence. There were circumstances where a person had received a firearm through inheritance, when those individuals applied for a licence their motivation stated that it was an heirloom. The laws which governed licence applications did not regard such a motivation as valid.

South Africa's past apartheid government had deliberately armed civilians and those arms were not accounted for. There were government departments with stockpiles of firearms, and the respective Ministers were not aware of those firearms. For instance within the SANDF there were more than 400 firearms whose serial numbers had been erased. The Department of Agriculture may not have known that 48 pistols were confiscated from farmers. There were schools that were given firearms for target practice. The police had discovered functional firearms at the military museum although the records had stated that those arms had been destroyed.

On the Gun Amnesty process, the Minister reported that more than 80 487 guns had been collected during the amnesty period, and about 30 000 firearms were confiscated by the police. Some owners had not even touched their firearms for more than 40 years. Their view was that "every gun that was handed in saved lives". During the Amnesty period 106 hand grenades, 36 rifle grenades, RPG7 Shells, 25 mortars plus one small canon had also been handed in. A monitoring and evaluation team was appointed to look at further actions around amnesty

Mr V Ndlovu (IFP) asked the Minister when would the Private Security Industry Regulatory Council Chairperson be appointed, to fill the vacancy that had been left by Mr Josiah Jele. He wanted to know whether the Amnesty would be extended.

Minister Nqakula replied that the Private Security Industry Regulatory Council had five positions and all those five positions had been filled before Mr Jele resigned as the Chair. It was the responsibility of Cabinet to see that all positions were filled. The amnesty process had worked due to police action and the citizens who had come forward with information. He said that the amnesty process was unlikely to be extended.

Mr Gaum (NNP) said that the appeal board had problems in constituting a quorum and that had led to a delay in the processing of firearm licences. He asked what steps were being taken to correct that. He enquired about the steps taken to sort out the faulty IT systems which often resulted in registering incorrect addresses and ID numbers.

Minister Nqakula replied that the firearm registry had been restructured including the IT system in order to work more efficiently. The Board would be working full time so that problems such as the quorum would be a thing of the past.

Rev K Meshoe asked about the steps taken to investigate why some people had military weapons.

Minister Nqakula replied that the police did not interrogate people who brought forward illegal firearms, but some of them volunteered information on their own regard.

Mr T Masemurele asked if the confiscated weapons were subjected to ballistic testing. What investigations had been made on the activities of private security companies that had automatic assault rifles?

Minister Nqakula replied that all illegal firearms were tested ballistically. The activities of the private security companies were investigated, some security companies were allowed to have semi-automatic rifles due to the nature of their work.

Mr P Groenewald (FF+) said that not all firearms were a danger to society but some of them were actually saving the lives of their owners. Some people in his constituency were confused, for example one person was in possession of an aircraft rocket. The police had said that if it was not functional and therefore he could keep it.

Minister Nqakula replied that the police force was comprised of more than 140 000 members and typically not all these individuals would be capable of dealing with registration. Not all front desk personnel were trained to deal with firearm registration. The competent people in that regard were the Designated Firearm Registration Officers. Firearm registration centres were not in every "dorpie" for an example Pilgrims Rest did not have a firearm registration centre. The Minister would investigate the issue, he admitted that firearms do protect people but it was a fact that about 20 000 firearms had been lost because the owners were not keeping them in safes. Those firearms had ended up in the wrong hands.

Mr R Jankielson (DA) enquired when would the report on private security companies be forwarded to the Committee. He wanted to know the feasibility of completing the firearm registration process within a four-year period. The re-registration was poorly communicated, he wanted to know what steps would be taken to ensure that people understood the process. He enquired about the reasons for the delays in issuing firearm licences that could have saved a cash heist from taking place.

Minister Nqakula replied that there had been problems with the Private Security Registration Framework, but it was in the process of being sorted out. From the beginning of August 2005 the Department would launch a huge media campaign informing citizens about the re-registration of firearms process. He urged members to assist with this when doing their constituency work.

Ms A Van Wyk (ANC) enquired about gun control at the borders since most of the illegal firearms were smuggled through the borders.

Minister Nqakula replied that Interpol and the South African Development Community were co-operating in controlling the flow of arms through the national borders.

Mr Maserumele asked about the composition of the people who had submitted firearms, were they groups or individuals?

Minister Nqakula replied that all firearms which were confiscated had to be tested whether they came from crime or were handed in by individuals.

The meeting was adjourned.

Chair’s Summary of the ‘International Meeting on the Regulation of Civilian Ownership and Use of Small Arms’ – Rio de Janeiro, March 16-18 2005

Convened by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in collaboration with the Government of Brazil, Viva Rio and Sou da Paz

Representatives of States, international organisations and civil society groups participated in the International Meeting on the Regulation of Civilian Ownership and Use of Small Arms from 16-18 March 2005 in Rio de Janeiro. The meeting included participants from all regions of the world, making it one of the first ever explicitly concerned with the establishment of global standards for ownership and use of small arms as it relates to national arms control. Participants observed that the majority of small arms are, in fact, in the hands of civilians, hence the importance of regulation of the possession and use of such arms. In addition, the meeting also observed that the majority of victims and survivors of gun violence around the world are civilians, thus emphasizing the direct impact of these weapons on civilians, as well as the urgent need for states to address the issue of regulation and licensing of weapons.

Experiences were exchanged from a number of contexts – ‘peaceful’ nations as well as those recovering from years of war. It was consistently reinforced that weapons proliferation and misuse knows no borders. Participants further reiterated that many weapons are held and used illegally. In addition, many legally-held weapons are used with illegal intent. It is therefore necessary to recognise that all civilian-held firearms, whether legal or illegally held, pose potential threats for misuse, and legislation must recognise and address this reality. Where firearm legislation is in place, it is often inadequately enforced. Moreover, states highlighted the importance of promoting greater harmonisation of arms control laws both within each State and region and globally, to limit the ability of lawbreakers to evade tough standards.

There was also reflection on the progress that has been made in recent years in improving national small arms control legislation, particularly at the national and regional levels. The participants were heartened by emerging trend towards increased national regulation, as suggested by major legislative revisions in at least a dozen countries in the past decade, and by ongoing law reform efforts in a number of other States. These national-level efforts have occurred in tandem with impressive regional efforts, including the 2000 Legal Framework for a Common Approach to Weapons Control of the South Pacific (the Nadi Framework), the 2001 Protocol on the Control of Firearms, Ammunition and other related materials in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region, and the 2004 Nairobi Protocol for the Prevention, Control and Reduction of Small Arms and Light Weapons in the Great Lakes Region and the Horn of Africa.

Despite this progress, however, participants cited a need to better coordinate actions at the local, national and regional levels, and to strive for the establishment of minimum standards so that inadequate legislation in one state or region does not undermine the efforts of others to address the issue. The 2001 Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects is a positive first step in terms of achieving progress at the international level. Article 3, in particular, calls on States to criminalise illegal firearm possession, to require all firearms be marked, and to establish accurate and timely systems to record firearm stockpiles. Despite the omission of the need for regulation of civilian possession in the 2001 UN Programme of Action, more than sixty nations reported on their national arms control laws and approaches at the 2003 Biennial Meeting of States on the UN Programme of Action, indicative of the will and commitment to address this issue. In preparation for the forthcoming Second Biennial Meeting of States, States were encouraged to continue this practice and include this focus in their national reports and statements.

Participants observed that the discussions on the development of global principles for arms transfers including small arms and light weapons and the possibility for greater control of these transfers would further support efforts to end the misuse of weapons by civilians in many nations and regions. In addition, a compelling case for careful regulation of civilian-held weapons was put forward by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights and Small Arms. Ms Frey noted that international human rights standards place duties on States to take proactive steps to protect those within their jurisdiction against threats to life and bodily harm, and it is increasingly recognised that doing so requires states to put in place effective systems for regulating the possession and use of guns by civilians.

Building on the principles noted in the Chair’s summary from the January 2005 meeting in Montreux and having examined the above instruments, as well as several national case studies, the experts proposed a number of principles that could form the basis for minimum standards to guide national small arms control policies and regulations:

• Civilians should be restricted from acquiring or possessing small arms designed for military use.

• Ownership of small arms should be contingent on obtaining a firearms license, which, in turn, could be based on the following minimum criteria, inter alia – meeting a minimum age requirement; lacking a relevant criminal history, including of intimate partner and family violence; existence of a legitimate reason to acquire weapons; observance of relevant gun laws as well as the safe and efficient handling of small arms.

• Small arms licenses should be time-limited and subject to periodic renewal.

• Measures should be in place to allow for the removal of small arms from owners whose licenses have been revoked or persons unfit to possess firearms.

• Small arms ammunition sales should be restricted to those with a valid firearms license, and only for ammunition suitable for the type of gun specified on the license as well as limitation on the number of rounds of ammunition allowed.

• States should ensure that adequate records are kept of all civilian-held small arms, including details of the authorised holder and unique serial number of the weapon.

• Greater co-ordination of civilian focussed small arms laws and enforcement practices should be encouraged to the greatest extent possible to ensure consistent good practices within regions as well as national uniformity.

• Where feasible, States, international organisations and civil society should provide assistance and collaborate for the effective implementation of standards such as these.

The meeting concluded with agreement that interested States could usefully build on progress made in the UN small arms process as well as at regional and national levels, by promoting good practices and lessons learned as well as the identification of policy recommendations on the issue of effective gun control legislation and approaches for discussion at the 2006 Review Conference.


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