In June 2018, the gun ownership debate in South Africa resurfaced after a father accidentally shot and killed his son. He allegedly shot his son after being startled by a knock on his car window after falling asleep while waiting for the boy to return from extra lessons at the school. The father, who was let off with a warning from the court, maintained that he kept a gun with him because he feared getting hijacked.

The paranoia of being a victim of crime in South Africa is usually cited as one of the biggest reasons to own a gun. The crime rate is on the rise, with home invasions, hijackings and muggings being some of the most common offences. According to Small Arms Survey, a weapons watchdog organisation, there are approximately 5,351,000 guns in South Africans’ possession; however, only 3 million firearms are registered and legally owned.

While it isn’t enshrined in the Constitution- unlike America’s Second Amendment- you can legally own a gun in South Africa.  Of course, it isn’t just as simple as walking into a shop and purchasing a firearm along with your groceries.

South African legislation makes it rather difficult to own a gun legally, and there is an extensive process that one has to go through before being allowed to bear arms.

Steps and requirements to obtain a gun licence in South Africa: 

  • You have to be a South African citizen or a permanent resident. What’s more, you should have no record of a violent crime or violation of the Firearms Control Act.
  • If you have a record of some kind of violation, you will have to wait 5 years after those specific charges to have your application reviewed and the ban potentially lifted.
  • Then, you will have to undergo a firearms competency evaluation at a designated training provider that has been verified by the South African Police Service (SAPS).
  • There are different tests for the different kinds of guns you wish to own, whether it’s a pistol, rifle or shotgun etc. (more on this a little later).
  • The competency test also comprises an open-book written assessment and a target practice.
  • A medical document from a doctor stating that you do not suffer from depression or any other mental illness that alters your emotional state is required.
  • Your character will only be determined by two interviews with two family members or close friends.
  • After all of the above, you must make a trip to your local police station and get the Designated Firearms Office to take your fingerprints and competency documents. They will then process your competency certificate, which usually takes about 6 weeks.

Different gun licences for different types of guns

  • Self Defence – Valid for five years, limited to one weapon per person, any pistol, revolver, or shotgun that is not self-loading, licensing a weapon outside these limitations requires extra motivation and limits the licence validity to two years.
  • Occasional Sports Shooter – Valid for ten years, limited to four per person (three if you possess a self-defence licence), any pistol, revolver, bolt action rifle, or shotgun that is not self-loading.
  • Dedicated Sport Shooter- Valid for ten years, unlimited number of weapons of any type, excluding fully automatic weapons. You must compete in a minimum number of accredited shooting association matches each year to maintain this licence.
  • Occasional Hunter – Same as Occasional Sports Shooter.
  • Professional Hunter- Valid for ten years, any number of long arms (legality of hunting using self-loading weapons differs from province to province), you must be a member of an accredited hunting association and fulfil the requirements of that association for each year to maintain this licence.
  • Collector – Valid for ten years; any weapons, including small artillery pieces and fully automatic weapons may be owned under this licence. However, you must be part of an accredited collectors’ association, and any gun you wish to licence must be motivated along the “theme” of your collection.

Do note: According to the law, you must renew your firearm licence at least 90 days before the expiry date. The validity of the licence varies between two and ten years, depending on the type of licence.

What constitutes self-defence in South Africa?

To determine whether or not an act of retaliation is lawful, the courts apply what’s known as the ‘reasonable man’ test, which begs the question of whether or not a reasonable man -someone who exercises average care, skill, and judgement in conduct – in the same position would have done the same thing.

There are very limited circumstances under which South Africans are entitled to act in self-defence. Of course, a person whose life is threatened can use necessary force to defend themselves lawfully. Even if it means the attacker is injured or killed. The force may not be excessive and must be proportionate to the attack.

Factors that are considered in a self-defence case:

  • The attack against you must be unlawful.
  • The attack must be unavoidable or already occurring.
  • Your defensive action must occur during the attack.
  • Your retaliation must be directed towards your attacker
  • Your defensive action must be proportionate to the attack.

Breaking gun ownership laws in South Africa

If you fail to comply with any of the above, or if you are dishonest in your application, it could result in a hefty fine, prison time or both. The maximum possible prison term for each offence is spelt out in great detail, the terms ranging from two to twenty-five years. Additionally, if the penalty stipulated for the crime in question is a fine or prison term of up to five years, additional administrative fines are imposed.

You could face penalties if: 

  • Your firearm isn’t locked away in a safe, strong room or similar security device.
  • You lose your gun because you haven’t taken the necessary safekeeping steps.
  • You do not have the necessary licence for the specific firearm.
  • Point a firearm without any justifiable reason to do so
  • Sell, give or supply a firearm or ammunition to a person who cannot possess a firearm or ammunition.
  • You falsified any of the required competency documents in your application.
  • If you don’t report the loss, theft, or destruction of a firearm to the police, whether by the person licensed to possess the gun or anyone who had the gun when it was lost, stolen or destroyed within 24 hours.
  • The firearm’s serial number has been changed or removed without the Registrar’s permission.

Should there be stricter gun ownership laws in South Africa?

Of the approximately 5,351,000 firearms in South Africa, 2.35 million are allegedly unregistered, and therefore, illegally owned. Considering the number of violent crimes committed with guns, it’s unsurprising that there is a solid anti-gun sentiment in South Africa as well.

Spearheading this movement is Gun Free South Africa, a non-profit organisation that believes there was a “breakdown” of the firearms control management system since 2012‚ which has led to fraud and corruption in the licensing of guns.  The organisation also maintains that between 18 and 21 of the 52 South Africans murdered per day are killed with guns.

One of Gun Free South Africa’s arguments centres around access to guns. The organisation’s Adele Kirsten says: “The evidence shows that when you reduce access to these guns or gun theft and work with stronger gun laws, we half our gun-related deaths”.

So it seems as though the gun debate will rage on since many own guns because of the crime rate, but then the access to firearms can also be attributed to the rising crime rate.  Thus, gun owners need to be highly responsible and careful with their guns.