The arrest of Olympic and Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorius following the shooting of his girlfriend, model Reeva Steenkamp, at Pistorius' home in Pretoria last week has focused considerable attention, in the local and international media, on gun laws and gun ownership in South Africa.
In 2004, new legislation came into force in South Africa, in the form of the Firearms Control Act of 2000, that brought in significantly tougher controls on the ownership, possession and use of firearms in the country.
According to South African Police Service (SAPS) statistics, the level of gun-related crime in the country dropped by 21.2% between 2004/5 and 2011/12.
Gun-related homicide, 'intimate femicide'
While this was in line with a general decrease in crime levels reported over the same period, there is evidence to support a statement made by SA's Ministry of Police in December that the drop in gun-related crime was thanks to the new gun law.
Anti-gun organisation Gun Free South Africa, in its February update, cites data gleaned from countrywide mortuary statistics by the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System showing the percentage of firearm homicides in South Africa's major centres - Johannesburg, Durban, Cape Town and Pretoria - dropping from 29% in 2002 to 10.8% in 2008.
Fact-checking website Africa Check found further corroboration of the police chief's claim in research by the Medical Research Council's Gender and Health Research Unit on the murder of women by their "intimate partners", which found that the use of guns in such cases almost halved between 1999 and 2009.
For Gun Free South Africa, there is no doubt that the reason for the decreasing role of firearms in violent crime in the country is because the Firearms Control Act "drastically raised the bar for gun ownership, thereby excluding people who aren't fit and proper".
Two-stage licence application process
While gun owners' associations will continue to dispute this, it is certainly the intention behind the legislation, which stipulates, among other things, that:
- A would-be gun owner must first apply to be declared fit to obtain a firearm licence, and be issued with a competency certificate. Only then can he or she apply for a firearm licence, which licenses the person while registering the specific firearm applied for.
- The applicant must supply third-party character references, and pass background checks which take criminal, mental, medical, domestic violence, addiction, employment, and previous licence records into account.
- The would-be owner must demonstrate an understanding of firearm safety and the law by passing theoretical tests and undergoing practical training.
- Once licensed, gun owners must re-apply and re-qualify for their licence every two to 10 years.
- Where past history or apprehended likelihood of family violence exists, the law stipulates that a gun licence be denied or revoked.
The law gave existing licence holders five years in which to renew their licences or, failing that, to lawfully disposed of them of surrender them to the authorities for destruction.
According the SAPS, some 180 000 firearms were voluntarily surrendered to the police between January 2005 and March 2009. Most of these firearms were destroyed.
In spite of this, levels of gun ownership remain high in South Africa. Gun Free SA cites the Central Firearms Registry as reporting that there were approximately 2.9-million firearms registered to just over 1.5-million civilians in SA in August 2011 - down from 3.5-million in the hands of 2.4-million individuals in 1994, when the country held its first democratic elections.
Other estimates, taking into account illegal firearms, put that number much higher. Sydney, Australia-based GunPolicy.org, citing an international study published in 2007, estimates that there are almost 6-million privately held guns in SA.
The Ministry of Police remains undaunted. Spokesman Zweli Mnisi said in December that gun control was "at the heart of the ministry's strategy to combat violent crime", adding that systems were also being put in place "to ensure that firearms that are in the hands of the police and security officers are properly monitored to prevent loss and abuse.
"This forms part of the ministry's holistic approach to combating crime, which includes the promotion of responsible ownership of firearms."