South Africa's efforts to collect and destroy firearms: Losing the battle but winning the war

2013-04-29

A total of 2 065 firearms, 848 of which were legal firearms voluntarily surrendered and 1 217 of which had been used in criminal activities and were confiscated by the state, were destroyed by the South African Police Service (SAPS) in Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape province in March 2013. In the same month, the SAPS destroyed 1 136 firearms that officers had confiscated in the North West province. Of these, 781 were legal firearms voluntarily surrendered by the community and 355 were confiscated by the police during crime combating operations.

In February this year, more than 3 000 firearms and at least 31 000 knives were destroyed in Vereeniging in Gauteng. These are just a few reported cases of firearm destruction initiatives that took place in South Africa over the past few months. Many of these weapons had been lost by or stolen from legal owners or had been voluntarily surrendered by the legal owners to the state for destruction.

According to the SAPS’ 2011/2012 annual report, firearm confiscation figures for the past three years include:

The rise in firearm confiscations over the past three years can be attributed to increased police visibility, crime prevention operations and the implementation of the Firearms Control Act. Day-to-day operations conducted by the SAPS, such as testing legal compliance to possess a firearm as well as the confiscation of illegally possessed firearms, have all contributed to these figures.

The figures above present a positive trend in firearm confiscations over the three-year period. However, it is worrying that such a high proportion of weapons confiscated were legal firearms. In the three years between 2009 and 2012, 30 414 confiscated firearms were legal guns that had found their way into the illicit market as a result of their having been lost or stolen. This accounts for just under half the amount of confiscated firearms over this time period.

Firearms remain one of the key weapons used in acts of criminal activity and violence. They are often used in incidents of murder, attempted murder and armed robbery to incite fear and, in some cases, injure and kill targets. In South Africa, initiatives aimed at the successful collection and destruction of lost, stolen or voluntarily surrendered firearms, such as the cases highlighted above, illustrate the efforts of the SAPS to combat and address firearm proliferation and crime in South Africa. But these efforts are not without challenges.

Dealing with lost and stolen firearms is one of the key challenges faced by the SAPS in attempting to limit the number of legal firearms entering the illegal pool. The challenge is exacerbated by the fact that a large number of these lost or stolen firearms are recovered but find their way back into the hands of criminals and are used to commit criminal acts, contributing to the escalation of crime within the country.

In 2009/10, approximately 8 498 legal civilian firearms were lost; of this number only 3 985 were recovered – under 50%. In a statement in 2010, Minister of Police Nathi Mthethwa urged the public to take care of their firearms: ‘Much as we shall be tough on our members, we shall also be hard on any member of the public who loses his or her firearm.’ The figures for firearms lost by the SAPS show that the situation has improved over the past few years. In 2012, Mthethwa stated that SAPS members had lost a total of 885 firearms. During the first six months of 2012/2013, 317 lost firearms were recorded. This is a decrease from 2010/11, when a total of 1 335 firearms were lost by members of the SAPS, with a total of 167 being recovered. In 2012, Mthethwa expressed his concern regarding the unknown circumstances under which the loss or theft of firearms in the possession of the SAPS occurred, ranging from members in top management to the lower ranks. The Minister has also warned the SAPS to remain alert and responsible for any firearm allocated to it; failure to do so, he stated, would result in tough action taken against non-compliers.

Still, South Africa continues to make notable progress in its bid to step up police operations and other related functions to curb the loss, theft and proliferation of firearms. In August 2011, the Central Firearms Registry reported that there were approximately 2,9 million firearms 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. In the past three years the SAPS has implemented a number of measures, including crime-combating operations, to collect and recover thousands of unlicensed and unlawful firearms. Many of these weapons have been destroyed in initiatives such as the operations listed above.

The positive role of legal firearm owners over the past three years can also not be overemphasised. Following the implementation of the Firearms Control Act, which compels licensed firearm owners to re-apply for their firearm licences and includes more stringent testing and background checks, 63 433 legal firearms and 233 543 legal rounds of ammunition were voluntarily surrendered to the SAPS for destruction.

Despite the challenges faced in reducing the number of illegal firearms in circulation in South Africa, the SAPS continues to make progress in curbing the availability and use of these weapons in criminal activities. Guided by the Firearms Control Act, along with the assistance of civilians, the SAPS continues to address firearm-related crimes and the removal of illegal firearms. On-going collection and destruction initiatives, along with crime-combating operations, all contribute to the decline in legal firearms entering the illegal pool.

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

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