Avoiding stray bullets: the need for improved firearms control


In his affidavit before the court, South African 2012 Paralympic gold medallist Oscar Pistorius stated that he kept a 9mm pistol underneath his bed because he was scared of criminals. Following the events in the early hours of 14 February 2013 that saw him fatally shoot his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, he now faces charges of murder. This is not the first such case. In 2009 Johannesburg homeowner Warren Voster accidentally killed his domestic worker's 12-year-old grandson with a hunting rifle. The boy and his mother were visiting his grandmother during the school holidays. Voster mistook the boy for a robber and fired a shot through the window of the room where Elizabeth Ramolefe lived, killing her grandson. In 2004, retired rugby star Rudi Visagie mistakenly shot his 19-year-old daughter in his yard, believing her to be a car thief. Visagie's daughter had been sneaking out to surprise her boyfriend on his birthday. In the cases highlighted above one could argue that, had there not been a firearm present, the victims would still be alive. Clearly, now is the time to examine how to strengthen firearms control in South Africa, to prevent the all too common tragedy of 'mistaken identity' leading to a fatal shooting.

Criminal violence in South Africa is rooted in the country's history. The proliferation of firearms in the country, along with the weapons stockpiled by the liberation movements before 1994 that were never recovered, contribute to the manifestation of violent crime. White South African culture legitimised firearm ownership, and firearms were easily available for use as personal safety measures. Following democracy, firearm ownership has been driven by the fear of crime. The presence of firearms and other weapons in South Africa, particularly when set in the context of the high rate of violent crime, has resulted in many South Africans of all races acquiring firearms as a means of protection.

In May 1996 government released the National Crime Prevention Strategy (NCPS). The document highlighted the need for firearms control, and identified firearms as facilitating the perpetration of crime. The document also highlighted that the availability of firearms increased the risk of victimisation in South Africa. In a bid to limit the flow of firearms and ammunition from licensed owners to criminals, the government prioritised legislative and administrative controls so as to promote more responsible firearm ownership. The implementation of the Firearms Control Act (FCA), 2000, is a pragmatic response by government to the complex situation of firearms and firearm-related crimes. The Act was drafted to replace the out-of-date 1969 Arms and Ammunition Act. The FCA promotes more responsible firearm ownership. For example, the Act makes provision for more stringent regulations regarding firearm ownership and possession through strict competency testing, background checks and the implementation of stricter storage requirements. The FCA is a positive step by the South African government to control the availability and circulation of firearms within the country, and has contributed to a substantial decrease in the number of registered firearms and firearm-related deaths.

Available data identifies firearms as one of the leading non-natural causes of death in the country, with handguns considered to be the weapon of choice among criminals. Since the inception of the FCA, South Africa has seen a marked decrease in the number of firearm-related deaths. According to data collected by the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System (NIMSS), in 2002 29% of non-natural deaths were caused by firearms, 14,5% were from stab wounds and 11,5% were pedestrians being hit and killed by vehicles. In 2008, the last year for which data is available, there was a decline in the number of firearm-related deaths, with 13,6% of deaths caused by stab wounds, 10,8% by firearms and 9,8% by pedestrians being killed in transport-related accidents. Data collected by the Medical Research Council also highlighted a decrease in the number of intimate femicides (when a girl or woman is killed by an intimate partner such as her current or ex-husband, boyfriend etc.), as illustrated below:

Intimate femicide: manner of death




Blunt object-related

Intimate 1999




Intimate 2009




Non-intimate 1999




Non-intimate 2009














In August 2011, the Central Firearms Registry (CFR) reported that approximately 2,9 million firearms were registered to just over 1,5 million civilians in South Africa. This is a reduction from 1994, when there were 3,5 million licensed firearms in the hands of 2,4 million individuals.

The implementation of the FCA has not been without challenges. Backlogs in the issuing of competency certificates and firearm licences saw concerns raised by many applicants and other organisations closely affected by the Act. In November 2010 the Minister of Police was forced to publicly prioritise addressing the massive backlog in firearm licence applications, which amounted to 1 048 341 applications for firearm licences, individual renewals and competency certificates. According to the South African Police Service's 2011-2012 Annual Report, by the end of August 2011 all the outstanding applications had been finalised. This in turn led to concern among researchers and civil society groups about the fast-tracking of the firearm licence applications, which saw the CFR process just over 1 million applications in nine months.

Misgivings surrounding the appeals board have also been highlighted following the Pistorius murder case, which reportedly saw his licence application for the 9mm firearm used in Steenkamp's killing being rejected in 2008. In 2010 the licence was approved after Pistorius' successful appeal. A careful assessment of the current controls and the need for further improvement in implementing the FCA remain key to addressing firearm crime and violence in the country. Had the appeals board not overturned the initial decision not to grant Pistorius a firearm licence, things could have turned out differently for Reeva Steenkamp.

Lauren Tracey, Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria

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