South Africa

Illegal firearms

Proliferation of lethal weapons landing up in the wrong hands indicates regulation failure

File: Police forces shoot at protesters during fierce running battles after protesters took to the streets, Johannesburg, South Africa, 22 January 2018. EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

More than a quarter of Western Cape SAPS officers failed to complete their competency training in 2017, according to the Democratic Alliance. This, along with a series of recent reports regarding the proliferation of illegal firearms, highlights ongoing concerns around the South African regulation of guns.

Statistics emerged this week highlighting significant problems around national firearm regulation and competency training completion among Western Cape SAPS officers.

The Democratic Alliance announced on Wednesday that 27.6% of Western Cape SAPS officers failed to complete their firearms competency training in the 2017/2018 year. According to the DA, this number is the highest percentage of officers failing to complete their competency test in the last three years.

On the same day, the Portfolio Committee on Police issued a statement saying “more should be done to deal effectively with the proliferation of illegal firearms that are used by criminals in violent crime”. The committee unveiled five steps to work towards fixing this problem.

Both these statements arrive in the wake of a study that directly linked 1,066 deaths to the circulation of illegal firearms, some of which were sold by corrupt SAPS officers.

There may not be a direct relationship between SAPS officers failing to complete their competency training, the proliferation of illegal firearms, and the increase in homicide rate due to illegal firearms, but the fact that all three issues have materialised as a national crisis, simultaneously, points towards severe institutional problems when it comes to firearm regulation.

Adèle Kirsten of Gun Free South Africa does not think it’s a stretch to draw at least a partial causal relationship between officers failing to complete their competency training, and the problem of illegal firearm circulation.

The thing about competency is it’s not about ‘can you shoot straight’, it’s really about ‘do you understand the duties and responsibilities of carrying a lethal weapon’. When you may shoot, how you have to secure it, it’s about safe storage,” says Kirsten.

The notion of safe storage is central to this epidemic. Gun Free SA operates under the philosophy that “every illegal gun begins life as a legal gun”, meaning something happens in the lifespan of the weapon that changes its nature. According to a November 2017 Gun Free SA report, guns being “lost or stolen” is the greatest cause of illegal firearms. The report states that the average number of guns lost or stolen on a daily basis is 22, with 20 of those coming from civilians, the other two from SAPS officers.

Police officers that don’t know how to handle their firearms, take care of them, can lead to them being stolen,” explained Chris de Kock, an independent analyst on crime, violence, and crowd behaviour.

During firearm training it will be drilled into [police officers] that they should not be careless with their firearms… competency training consists of how do you handle your firearm, how do you clean your firearm, when do you use the firearm, and how do you use the firearm.”

Careless treatment of firearms, argues de Kock, is a major contributing factor to them being stolen.

The 26.7% of SAPS officers who failed to complete their competency training in the last financial year includes a number of officers who have at one point completed the training, but failed to renew it. In fact, a large majority of the 4,556 officers who failed to complete their training probably had completed the training at some point in the past, says Mireille Wenger of the DA.

Training on the firing range is an essential component of competency instruction, and Wenger finds the fact that “there is only one SAPS firing range in the [Western Cape] Province, and this single firing range is experiencing a shortage in ammunition” as a “deeply disturbing” cause of the low competency rates.

If you have a firearm and don’t practically use the firearm on a shooting range, it will be difficult to use it [in action],” agrees de Kock.

De Kock acknowledges the danger in not having the ability to practise on a range, especially when police officers are facing criminals who may be more competent in gun use than them.

The solution to this problem is, generally, stricter regulation.

You have to look at how do you reduce the risk and the opportunity for corruption to occur. You have to look at ways to reduce the risk for what we call leakage or diversion,” explains Kirsten.

Corruption implicates both officers who have illegally sold firearms and people who buy firearms for others whose previous criminal records disqualify them from purchasing the firearms themselves. Keeping better track of weapons that are sold, as well as those that are stockpiled for destruction to ensure they don’t get resold, is one step towards plugging the leaks.

Another solution is legal action, perhaps through the implementation of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill of 2015, written to amend the initial 2000 act. The amendment bill calls for improved marking systems, increased accountability mechanisms, increased oversight and duties for the Designated Firearms Officer, and increased oversight across SAPS command structures.

The effectiveness of these proposed solutions are yet to be debated, as the bill has not yet made its way to Parliament.

Kirsten sees the instability in leadership as the reason for the consistent delay in consideration for the amendments. Kirsten points out that “since 2015 we’re on our third minister of police”. With each new minister, the process of adopting the amendments regresses back to square one.

The parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Police’s recommendations for improvements suggests stricter regulation of guns within the country, and effective preventative measures against the smuggling of international guns into South Africa. As it pertains to “leakage”, the committee hopes to “enforce stricter control measures in South African Police Services stores and stations, and also in the arms supply of the South African National Defence Force” in addition to conducting a full-scale review of the Firearms Registry.

However, as de Kock points out, “the biggest threat today is firearms that are taken from civilians during robberies” – a cyclical problem which links back to better control of crime, stronger policing, and the improved safeguarding of weapons.

Wenger states that some of the worst affected crime areas only have one police officer to every 700 residents. She continues that “it is important to ensure that our current police force is better equipped and trained to ensure that the people of our province are afforded the opportunity to live in a safe and secure environment”.

With better protection, hopefully residents would see a reduction in crime, specifically in stolen weapons.

SAPS had not responded to requests for comment at the time of publication. DM


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