Fri, Jan 07, 2005 - Page 6 News List

New gun control laws spark anger in South Africa

ARMS CONTROL Critics of the law to curb gun-related crimes say that it attempts to disarm law-abiding citizens while leaving criminals armed

THE GUARDIAN , Johannesburg, South Africa

South Africa's licensed gun owners are furious about a new law which could force millions to hand over their weapons -- removing what some consider their only defense against rampant crime.

All legal guns must be re-licensed over a five-year period starting this week and thousands of applications have already been rejected or snagged in red tape.

Critics of the firearms control act say it is an attempt to disarm law-abiding citizens while leaving criminals armed and free to rape, rob and kill.

The government and gun-control activists defend the legislation as urgent and necessary for a country with one of the world's highest rates of gun-related crime.

"Without this, I'm a sitting duck," said Craig Rissik, a Johannesburg taxi driver, who fears that the licence for the revolver he sits on will not be renewed.

Crime has soared over the past decade since the fall of apartheid, and many citizens have bought licensed guns.

There are at least 2.5 million registered owners of up to 4.5 million guns -- more than the army and police combined. In addition, there are thought to be up to 4 million illegal guns, many smuggled from Mozambique after its civil war ended.

A three-month amnesty allowing people to hand in unlicensed guns free from prosecution started this week.

Advertisements abound for pistols, rifles and shotguns. So many people carry weapons that places which ban them -- such as certain retail and leisure outlets -- feel compelled to offer free storage.

The police complain that licensed owners often do not know how to use their guns, or allow them to fall into criminal hands. Many firearms are reported lost or stolen.

The number of recorded murders fell below 20,000 in the year to last March -- the lowest annual figure for a decade -- but at 42.7 per 100,000 people, the rate was still one of the world's highest. Almost half of the deaths were thought to be gun-related.

Recent high-profile cases included a football referee who shot a player during a match and a father who killed his daughter after mistaking her for a thief driving off with the family car.

Under the new gun control legislation, owners are now obliged to re-license. The law automatically denies guns to drug or alcohol abusers, spouse beaters or others inclined to violence or "deviant behavior." It raises the legal age of ownership from 16 to 21 and limits most people to one weapon for self-defense and a maximum of four others for other uses such as hunting.

Each applicant must complete an accredited training course and be cleared by a police background check involving interviews with three acquaintances. They must also install a safe or strongbox for storage and prove to the police that they need a gun.

Owners who now need to re-license fear that the regulations have been deliberately made too rigorous and that they will be rejected and obliged to part with their guns or risk 15 years in jail for illegal possession.

Figures show that in the past six months, 71 percent of those seeking licences for new guns have been rejected, deepening suspicions that the law is designed to disarm most owners.

Most of the rejected applicants are reportedly black, and the Black Gun Owners' Association has given warning that people will resort to buying illegal firearms.

Gun dealers complain that sales have plunged from 15,000 a month to nearly zero and that they have had to refund money to customers whose applications have been rejected or stuck in the bureaucracy.

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