The South African Firearms Control Act (FCA), 2000 (as amended), which replaced the Arms and Ammunition Act (1969), was enacted to introduce more rigorous firearm control processes and procedures in South Africa, as well as specific policing actions in order to reduce firearms crime and violence.
With another amendment to the FCA on the cards, various interest groups and NGOs have raised concerns about the effectiveness of the FCA to date. Much of the criticism by various interest groups and NGOs target the delays in processing license applications, dismissing the entire Act for what is essentially, an implementation problem,. As a result, these groups fail to recognise the Act's successes in other areas. Recently, the Deputy CEO of the South Africa Institute for Race Relations published a Research and Policy Brief labelling the FCA as a failure. However such criticisms have rarely made reference to data on firearm injuries and deaths, as a gauge of the success or failure of implementing the FCA.
Data on firearm violence in South Africa identifies firearms as one of the leading causes of non-natural deaths in the country, with handguns being the preferred weapon of choice. The misuse of firearms claims thousands of lives every year, and gravely affects the social harmony and security of individuals in South Africa. The perceived ease with which they can be obtained by individuals in the illegal pool, through loss or theft from the South African Police Services (SAPS), private individuals, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), and the private security industry, have only served to increase the fear of violence and crime.
Available disaggregated SAPS data on the use of firearms in incidents of crime and violence, such as cases of murder, attempted murder, rape and indecent assault, have not been made publically available by the South African government since 2000. Trends in firearms crime and violence can therefore only be analysed by means of gathering data from media reports, aggregated SAPS violence and crime data, and various data collection systems, such as Statistics South Africa (Stats SA) and the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS).
While the data collected from the above sources illustrates the level of firearm related deaths and injury within South Africa is high, the data also illustrates that there has been a significant decrease in the number of firearms related deaths and injuries in the country. Data collected by the NIMSS between 1999 and 2007 illustrates that the number of firearms-related incidents has decreased substantially, with firearm-related non-natural deaths declining from 26% (of total non-natural violent deaths) in 1999 to 14.9% in 2007. Up until 2007, firearms overshadowed other external causes of non-natural violent deaths such as sharp force injuries, burns and strangulations, amongst others, but in that year, sharp force injuries overtook firearms as the leading cause of non-natural violent deaths.
According to statistics collected by the SAPS between April 2009 and March 2010, the level of contact crime in the country, which includes crimes such as murder, attempted murder, sexual offences, assault, robbery with aggravated circumstances and common robbery, have also decreased since the preceding 2003/2004 financial year. Serious contact crimes such as murder decreased from an estimated 26 877 to 16 834 cases between 1995/1996 and 2009/2010, representing an impressive 50% reduction in the murder ratio. The decreases of 8.6% and 6.1% in the occurrence of murder and attempted murder respectively from 2003/2004 to 2009/2010, can, to some extent, be attributed to the reduction of street/public robbery, which decreased by 10.4%, and carjacking which decreased by 6.8% during the same period. This significant decrease in the number of contact crimes, could allow for the assumption that firearm related murders/crimes may have also decreased in the 1995/1996 to 2009/2010 period (SAPS Annual Report 1995/1996 and 2009/2010). It must be noted that while the SAPS data is not considered the most reliable source on crime data, as victims often do not report crimes to the SAPS for varying reasons. Nonetheless, the data collected by the SAPS still provides a fairly good indication of the crimes and acts of violence taking place within South Africa.
The above data clearly indicates a decrease in the number of firearms related deaths and injuries within South Africa since the inception of the FCA (2000). More stringent testing and background checks, the implementation of safer storage requirements, the establishment of an anti-corruption task team, as well as more rigorous enforcement of the competency to possess a firearm are all factors that contribute to ensuring that less firearms fall into the wrong hands, as well as less occurrences of firearms misuse and abuse. While concern has been raised by many applicants and other organisations closely affected by the Act, particularly regarding its implementation in the areas of issuing competency certificates and firearm licences, the latest amendment to the FCA seeks to tighten up various loopholes within the act and bring about more effective implementation of the principles within it. The Minister of Police has, in recent months, publicly prioritised addressing the serious backlog of processing firearm licence applications, following the establishment of an intervention task team last year, which has been looking at the problems and challenges within the SAPS Central Firearms Registry.
While implementing the FCA has not been smooth sailing, the recent commitment by the Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa to address the various issues of concern within the Act and to bring about more effective implementation of the Act, coupled with the decrease in firearms related death and injury over the past few years, illustrates that there may just be more to the FCA than meets the eye.
Lauren Tracey is a consultant in the Arms Management Programme of the ISS.