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Owning a gun in South Africa offers some safety, but risks run high for users and society – expert

A man holds a gun in one hand and bullets in another.
South Africa has strict gun control legislation. Roger Bosch/AFP via Getty Images.

South Africa has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, eclipsed only by Honduras and a handful of Caribbean island states. Furthermore, South African police crime data shows that South Africans experience above average levels of robbery, assault and rape.

The 2022/23 Victims of Crime survey, which surveyed a representative sample of 42,746 South Africans, showed that the population had been feeling acutely unsafe. Only 37% indicated that they felt safe at night in their communities. Public trust in the police has also fallen, declining from 38% in 2015 to 27% in 2021.

Illegal guns play a significant role in the high levels of violent crime in the country.

In June 2021 the police minister reported that there were more than 1.6 million private licensed firearm owners in South Africa who owned 2.7 million firearms. Since then, there have been close to 500,000 new firearm licence applications, according to the 2021/22 and 2022/23 police annual reports. Hence, it’s likely that there are around two million licensed firearm owners and about three million licensed firearms in the country.

The Small Arms Survey, which is widely regarded as the most reputable international source of information on firearms, has calculated that South Africa is ranked tenth globally in terms of licensed firearm ownership.

This begs the question: given that licensed firearms are being acquired by many South Africans for personal safety reasons, is a licensed firearm an effective means of self-protection in South Africa?

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After researching firearm crime and violence in Africa for more than 20 years, as well as serving as an arms trafficking expert for the United Nations, I have concluded that firearms can provide a degree of safety to users, but more importantly, they present a range of risks for users and society at large, especially if they are in criminal hands.

Getting a gun licence in South Africa

South Africa has strict firearm control legislation, and applying for a firearm licence is a time-consuming process.

The Firearms Control Act (2000) stipulates that firearm licence applicants must:

  • be 21 years of age or older

  • not have a criminal record or a history of substance abuse, violence or negligent handling of a firearm

  • pass background checks conducted by the police, and competency tests relating to firearm safety and knowledge of the relevant laws.

Applicants for a licence for self-protection need to provide the police with a compelling written motivation.

Owning a licensed firearm is also costly. An entry-level handgun costs around R9,000 (about US$485). A licence applicant is also required to have a gun safe at home that is approved by the South African Bureau of Standards. The cheapest gun safe costs about R900 (about US$48).

Guns, crime and safety

A key issue in South Africa is that criminals frequently possess firearms. Furthermore, a study of offenders with residential robbery convictions showed that firearm owners had been targeted by criminals for valuables, including firearms. It also showed that criminals were likely to shoot household members if they felt threatened.

Drawing on anecdotal evidence, firearm interest groups in South Africa have strongly promoted the personal safety advantages of firearm ownership. They claim it provides firearm owners with lethal technology to defend themselves, their families and their property.

However, there have been no credible South African studies to substantiate such a position.

In the US, a few studies have suggested that, in certain contexts, the possession of a firearm may discourage criminal attacks.

The crime prevention potential of firearm possession has nonetheless been challenged by a recent review of US studies by Rand, a respected think tank. It suggests that widespread legal firearm ownership cannot be convincingly linked to crime prevention.

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A recent South African study indicated that there was a higher risk of homicide during a robbery if both the perpetrator and victim had firearms. This was particularly the case for men as they were often more confrontational than women in such situations.

Studies from various countries have shown that other risks firearm owners and their families typically face include homicide, intimate partner violence, suicide, and accidental shootings.

Although most murders are committed with unlicensed firearms in South Africa, my research has shown that licensed firearms stolen from, or lost by, licensed owners have been acquired by violent criminals.

There have also been reports of licensed firearms being used in fatal road rage incidents. Licensed firearms have also featured prominently in studies on intimate partner femicide and domestic violence.

Firearms account for 8.6% of suicides in South Africa. This is close to the global average for firearm suicide, although countries with lower levels of firearm access tend to have lower percentages of suicide by firearm use.

A Red Cross Children’s Hospital study has indicated that the accidental shooting of children is also a problem in South Africa.

In short, firearm ownership is accompanied by risks of injury (and death) for firearm owners and their families.

Legal risks of firearm misuse

Firearms may provide firearm owners with a means of self defence in confrontations with criminals, but the unlawful use of a licensed firearm can have negative legal consequences for firearm owners, including criminal convictions. For example, a firearm owner may be charged with committing a violent crime if they use unreasonable and disproportionate lethal force when confronted by a criminal threat.

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Hence, South Africans who are eligible to apply for firearm licences for self-defence purposes should carefully reflect on risks that possessing a licensed firearm may present to them and their families before applying. Prospective gun owners may also want to consider whether there are less risky alternatives to firearm ownership, such as improving their security in the home and joining a neighbourhood watch or community safety group.

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