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Firearms

It is no secret that, for reasons which are no fault of their own, ‘guns’ of various sizes and descriptions plague South African society and have done so for several years. Indeed, a premise of the Firearms Control Act 20001 is that ‘the increased availability and abuse of firearms and ammunition has contributed significantly to the high levels of violent crime in our country’.

Recognising also that ‘every person has the right to life and the right to security of the person’, the Act is designed to establish a comprehensive system of firearms control – their registration, purchase, licensing, use, and so on. It is detailed in its provisions, no less than in relation to the various types of conduct it criminalises.

Over and above specific offences, the Act makes it a criminal offence to contravene any provision of the Act,2 or any notice issued under the Act.3 So you have to know your stuff when owning, using, handling and trading in firearms. I mean, duh.

A. Possession of firearms: general prohibitions

  1. It is a crime to have in your possession a firearm unless you hold, for that firearm, a current licence, permit or authorisation.4

  2. If you know of the existence of a firearm (or ammunition) in the possession of someone else, unlawfully, you must report this to a police official without delay. You commit an offence if you don’t.5

  3. In the case of a muzzle-loading firearm, it is an offence to possess one unless you have been issued also with a relevant competency certificate.6

  4. Certain firearms may not be possessed (or licensed) at all.7 These include:8
    • fully automatic firearms;
    • any gun, cannon, mortar, or launcher to fire a rocket, grenade, bomb, etc. (i.e. a ‘launcher’) or any imitation thereof;
    • any frame, body or barrel of such a fully automatic firearm or launcher;
    • any projectile to be discharged from a launcher, or any imitation thereof; and
    • any other firearm gazetted by the Minister of Police.9
  5. It is also a criminal offence to possess a firearm where:10
    • the mechanism has been altered to enable multiple shots from a single trigger;
    • the calibre has been altered without the written permission of the National Commissioner of Police;11
    • the barrel length has been (purposely) altered without such written permission;
    • the serial number or any other identifying mark has been changed or removed without such written permission.
  6. If a person becomes, or is declared unfit (by the Registrar, or the court) to possess a firearm12 he must, within 24 hours, surrender to the nearest police station all permits, licences, certificates and ammunition in his possession. It is a crime not to do so.13

  7. A police official (or any person authorised by the Registrar) who has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has, or recently had a firearm or ammunition in his possession, may request that person to:14
    • state his full name, age, residential and employment address;
    • produce his licence, permit or authorisation for the possession of the firearm;
    • answer questions relating to the whereabouts of the firearm; and
    • furnish any other information reasonably required by the police official or authorised person.

    It is an offence not to comply with such requests.

  8. In addition, any person who is in possession of a firearm whose serial number or mark has been erased, or tampered with, or has simply become illegible, must notify the Registrar and commits a crime by not doing so.15

B. Handling and discharging

  1. It is an offence to cause bodily injury to any person, or cause damage to property by negligently using a firearm, or an airgun.16

  2. It is also an offence to discharge (or otherwise handle) a firearm or an airgun:
    • in a manner likely to injure or endanger the safety or property of any person; or
    • with reckless disregard for the safety or property of any person.17
  3. If you have control of a loaded firearm or an airgun in circumstances where it creates a risk to the safety or property of any person, you commit a crime if you do not take reasonable precautions to avoid the danger.18

  4. It is an offence to handle a firearm or an airgun while under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or a narcotic effect.19

  5. If you give control of a firearm or an airgun to a person whom you know (or ought reasonably to have known) to be mentally ill, or to be under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or a narcotic effect, you commit a criminal offence.20

  6. It is an offence to point any firearm or airgun at any other person, whether it is loaded or not, and whether it is capable of being discharged or not, without good reason.21

  7. For that matter, you commit a crime if you point anything at any person which is likely to lead him to believe that it is a firearm, without good reason to do so.22

  8. It is an offence to discharge a firearm or airgun in a built-up area, or any public place, without good reason to do so.23

C. Carrying and storage

  1. It is an offence if you do not lock away a firearm, in a safe or strongroom,24 when it is not carried on the person or is not under your direct control.25

  2. It is an offence to carry a firearm in a public place unless:26
    • in the case of any other firearm, in a holder designed for carrying the firearm;
    • the firearm is completely covered; and
    • the person carrying the firearm must be able to exercise effective control over it.
  3. If a person loses a firearm, he commits an offence.27

  4. An offence is also committed if he is dispossessed of a firearm, owing to his failure to:28
    • lock the firearm away in a prescribed safe or strongroom;
    • take reasonable steps to prevent the loss or theft; or
    • keep the keys to such safe or strongroom.
  5. If you are licensed, or were in possession of or had control of a firearm when it was lost, stolen or destroyed you must report it to the police station nearest to the place of the occurrence within 24 hours. If you do not do so, it is a criminal offence.29

D. Possession of ammunition

  1. No person may possess any ammunition unless he:30
    • holds a licence in respect of a firearm capable of discharging that ammunition;
    • holds a permit to possess ammunition;
    • holds a dealer’s licence, manufacturer’s licence, gunsmith’s licence, import, export or in-transit permit or transporter’s permit issued in terms of this Act; or
    • is otherwise authorised to do so.
  2. It is an offence to possess more than 200 cartridges for each firearm in respect of which you hold a licence, except if you are a licenced hunter or sports shottist, or the holder of a licence for an accredited shooting range.31

E. Licensing: General

  1. Separate licences are issued in respect of each firearm, and in respect of each person. It is an offence to contravene or fail to comply with any condition of a licence, permit or authorisation.32

  2. An additional licence may be granted in respect of firearms to be used in self-defence, or for hunting, to persons who reside on the same premises as the holder of the primary licence. If any person who holds such an additional licence moves from the premises, that licence lapses and the person concerned commits an offence if he does not return the licence to the Registrar.33

  3. Before the Registrar issues a licence for dedicated hunting or sport shooting, a certification must be submitted from an accredited hunting association or sports shooting organisation to the effect that the applicant is a registered member. Every such association and organisation must keep proper registers, and submit annual reports to the Registrar, and commits an offence if it fails to do so.34

  4. The same applies to professional hunting associations.35

  5. No licence will be issued unless the firearm bears the manufacturers’ serial number or any other identification mark. It is a criminal offence to erase or tamper with this number or mark in order to change the identity of the firearm.36

  6. It is an offence by the holder of a licence (of whatever type) not to notify the Registrar:37
    • of a change of his address;
    • of any change to the information submitted in respect of the licence application.
  7. If a licence is cancelled by the Registrar, the (erstwhile) licence holder must dispose of the firearm within 60 days.38

  8. It is an offence not to maintain a licence, permit or authorisation in an undefaced and legible condition.39

  9. It is also an offence to fail, if required by a police official or the Registrar to do so, within seven days:40
    • to produce the licence, permit or authorisation for inspection;
    • to produce the firearm.41
  10. It is an offence to:
    • add anything to, alter, or erase anything from a competency certificate, licence, permit or authorisation without the Registrar’s permission;42
    • use or possess any competency certificate, licence, permit or authorisation which has been so altered;43
    • give to another person to use any competency certificate, licence, permit or authorisation;44
    • furnish false, incorrect or misleading information in an application for a competency certificate, licence, permit or authorisation, or in any return required by the Act.45

F. Firearm collections

  1. Licenses may be issued for firearm collections. In the case of private collections, it is an offence if the holder of the licence:46
    • does not store the firearm(s) at the place specified in the licence; or47
    • fails to display the firearm according to any specified safety measures;48
    • has not effected measures to ensure that no cartridge can be loaded, or discharged.49
  2. In the case of public collections, such firearms may only be displayed in an accredited museum, or by an accredited public collector, and then in accordance with specified safety measures. It is a crime to do otherwise.50

  3. The same applies to collections of ammunition. It is also an offence to possess more than 200 rounds of ammunition of a particular calibre, unless approved by the Registrar.51

G. Business licences

  1. Business licences can be granted, for example, for use in training, as a game rancher, professional hunter, as well as for supply to and use in theatrical, film or television productions. It is an offence to use a firearm for any purpose other than that specified in the licence.52

  2. It is also an offence to contravene any condition placed upon the supply or use of such firearms.53

  3. Every holder of a business licence must:

    • keep a register of all firearms in its possession;54
    • store and transport the firearms as prescribed;55
    • produce for inspection any firearm, ammunition or licence if requested by a police official;56

    and it is a crime not to do so.

H. Disposal of firearms

  1. It is a crime not to dispose of a firearm, if obliged to do so. Firearms must be disposed of in the following circumstances:
    • Where a licence is issued to a person on the basis that he is accredited to provide training in the issue of firearms, or for use in entertainment, or as a game rancher, or as a professional hunter, or for any other business purposes and the accredition is cancelled by the Registrar;57
    • where a dealer’s licence is terminated; or58
    • where a gunsmith’s licence is terminated.59
  2. It is an offence to get rid of a firearm in any other way than through a licensed firearms dealer (or as determined by the Registrar) – and, within 60 days of the license, permit etc. lapsing or terminating.60

  3. There are detailed regulations governing the disposal of a firearm upon the death of the licence holder;61 for the destruction of firearms;62 and their deactivation.6364

I. Dealers

  1. It is a crime to trade in any firearm, muzzle-loading firearm or ammunition without a dealer’s licence.65

  2. There are several duties placed upon a firearms dealer, and he commits a criminal offence if he fails to comply with any of them:
    • to trade only on premises specified in the dealer’s licence;66
    • not to permit any person to trade in firearms or ammunition on his behalf unless that person is in possession of the appropriate competency certificate;67
    • to keep at the premises specified in the licence such registers as may be prescribed;68
    • to keep his dealer’s licence on the premises specified in the licence;69
    • at the request of any police official, to produce for inspection:70
      • (a) any firearms or ammunition that the dealer may have in stock;
      • (b) his dealer’s licence; and
      • (c) any register or electronic data kept by the dealer.
    • to establish and maintain a workstation which links his registers to the central dealers database;71
    • to comply with any condition endorsed in his licence, or any specification prescribed in respect of his business premises.72
  3. If a dealer’s licence is lost or stolen, he must inform the Registrar within 24 hours and commits an offence by failing in this duty.73

  4. He must also, within seven days, apply to the Registrar for a copy of the licence. This also applies if the licence is defaced.74

J. Manufacturers

  1. It is a crime to manufacture any firearm or ammunition without a manufacturer’s licence.75

  2. It is a crime for a manufacturer to sell firearms and ammunition to any person other than a dealer or to the State.76

  3. It is a crime to export firearms and ammunition from the Republic without an export permit.77

  4. As with dealers, manufacturers also have duties, and commit an offence by not complying with the obligations:
    • to manufacture firearms or ammunition only on premises specified in the licence;78
    • to apply or affix a serial number (or any other mark) to all firearms as may be prescribed;79
    • to keep the prescribed registers, at the premises specified in the licence;80
    • to keep his manufacturer’s licence on the premises specified in the licence;81
    • at the request of any police official, produce for inspection:82
      • (a) any firearms or ammunition that he have in stock;
      • (b) his manufacturer’s licence; and
      • (c) any register or electronic data kept by the manufacturer.
    • to establish and maintain a workstation which links his registers to the central manufacturers’ database;83
    • to comply with all conditions specified in the manufacturer’s licence.84
  5. If a manufacturer’s licence is lost or stolen, he must inform the Registrar within 24 hours and commits an offence by failing in this duty.85

  6. He must also, within seven days, apply to the Registrar for a copy of the licence. This also applies if the licence is defaced.86

K. Gunsmiths

  1. A gunsmith is someone who performs certain work on a firearm, but is not a manufacturer. It is an offence, without being the holder of a gunsmith’s licence,87 to do any of the following:88
    • alter the mechanism to enable more than one shot with a single trigger pull;
    • alter the calibre of a firearm;
    • alter its barrel length;
    • alter or remove the serial number or any other identifying mark of a firearm; or
    • perform such other work as may be prescribed – at present,89 this is repair, customise, custom build, adapt, modify, assemble, deactivate or store a firearm.
  2. It is a criminal offence if a gunsmith:
    • conducts business on premises otherwise than as specified in his licence;90
    • fails to register at the premises licence;91
    • does not keep his licence on the premises specified in the licence;92
    • fails to produce, at the request of any police official:93
      • (a) any firearms or ammunition in his possession;
      • (b) his gunsmith’s licence; and
      • (c) any register or electronic data kept by the gunsmith.
    • does not establish and maintain a workstation which links the registers to the central gunsmiths’ database;94
    • fails to comply with any conditions endorsed on his licence, or in respect of his premises, or as prescribed.95
  3. If a gunsmith’s licence is lost or stolen, he must inform the Registrar within 24 hours and commits an offence by failing in this duty.96

  4. He must also, within seven days, apply to the Registrar for a copy of the licence. This also applies if the licence is defaced.97

L. Import and export

  1. It is a crime to import into or export from South Africa any firearms or ammunition without a permit.98

  2. This applies to in-transit carriage through South Africa as well.99 An in-transit permit is required.100

  3. The holder of such a permit must comply with the conditions specified in the permit; and must, at the request of any police official, produce for inspection:101

    • (a) any firearms or ammunition in his possession or control;
    • (b) his permit; and
    • (c) any register or electronic data that may be kept by him, and commits an offence if he fails to do so.
  1. As amended, the latest amendment was effected by Act 37 of 2013. 

  2. See section 120(1)(a). 

  3. See section 120(1)(c). 

  4. Section 3(1). 

  5. Section 120(2)(a). 

  6. Section 3(2). 

  7. There are exceptions: licensed and approved collection purposes, or for licensed and controlled use in approved theatrical, film or television productions. 

  8. Section 4(1)(a)–(e) and section 4(3)(a). 

  9. Section 4(1) and section 4(3)(a). 

  10. Section 4(1)(f). 

  11. Who is the ‘Registrar of Firearms’ for purposes of the Act. 

  12. For example, because a protection order, in terms of the Domestic Violence Act, has been granted against him. Another example is if he has been convicted of a crime involving drugs. 

  13. Section 104(2). 

  14. Section 108(1). 

  15. Section 23(6). 

  16. Section 120(3)(a). 

  17. Section 120(3)(b). 

  18. Section 120(3)(c). 

  19. Section 120(4). 

  20. Section 120(5). 

  21. Section 120(6(a). 

  22. Section 120(6)(b). 

  23. Section 120(7). 

  24. Which conforms to SABS Standard 953–1 and 953–2. Regulation 86(1). 

  25. Section 120(8). 

  26. Section 84(1). 

  27. Section 120(8)(b). 

  28. Section 120(8)(6). 

  29. Section 29(1). 

  30. Section 90. 

  31. Section 91(1). 

  32. Section 120(1)(b). 

  33. Section 12(3). 

  34. Section 16(4). 

  35. Section 16(4). 

  36. Section 23(1). 

  37. Section 25. 

  38. Section 28(5). 

  39. Section 106(1)(b). 

  40. Section 20(7) and section 106(1)(a). 

  41. Section 106(1)(c). 

  42. Section 120(9)(b). 

  43. Section 120(9)(c). 

  44. Section 120(9)(d). 

  45. Section 120(9)(f). 

  46. Section 17(3). 

  47. Section 17(3)(a). 

  48. Section 173)(b). 

  49. Section 17(3A). 

  50. Section 19(4). 

  51. Section 19(3). 

  52. Section 20(4). 

  53. Section 20(5)(a). 

  54. Section 20(6). 

  55. Section 20(6). 

  56. Section 20(7). 

  57. Section 8(4)(b). 

  58. Section 42(4)(a). 

  59. Section 70(4). 

  60. Section 70(4); section 42(4)(a) and (b); section 8(4)(b) and (c); section 31(2). 

  61. Firearms Control Regulation 103 published under Government Gazette GN3456 on 26 March 2004. 

  62. Regulation 104. 

  63. Regulation 105. 

  64. Section 147. 

  65. Section 31(1). 

  66. Section 39(1). 

  67. Section 39(2). 

  68. Section 39(3). 

  69. Section 39(4). 

  70. Section 39(5). 

  71. Section 39(6). 

  72. Section 39(9). 

  73. Section 44(1). 

  74. Section 44(2). 

  75. Section 45(1). 

  76. Section 45 (2). 

  77. Section 45(2) read with section 73(1). 

  78. Section 53(1). 

  79. Section 53(2). 

  80. Section 53(3). 

  81. Section 53(4). 

  82. Section 53(5). 

  83. Section 53(6). 

  84. Section 53(7). 

  85. Section 58(1). 

  86. Section 58(2). 

  87. Or being registered as an apprentice. 

  88. Section 59(a)–(e). 

  89. Regulation 50. 

  90. Section 67(1). 

  91. Section 67(2). 

  92. Section 67(3). 

  93. Section 67(4). 

  94. Section 67(5). 

  95. Section 67(8). 

  96. Section 72(1). 

  97. Section 72(2). 

  98. Section 73(1). 

  99. For example, someone lands in Johannesburg en route to a hunting trip in Namibia. 

  100. Section 73(2). 

  101. Section 78(4) and section 78(1).