Out of my cold, dead Kung-fu hands

Written by Ciaran Ryan. Posted in Journalism

Beware governments that disarm. First published in DearSA.

In what is possibly the worst timing imaginable, the Firearms Control Amendment Bill was opened for comment just as looters racked up R50-R200 billion in damage and stolen property (it would be safe to assume the actual cost will tend towards the upper limit of this range).

We know this bill is a complete non-starter. Of the many thousands of comments collected by Dear South Africa, more than 99% are opposed to this bill. That’s probably a record for any campaign run by Dear SA, says campaign project leader, Rob Hutchinson.

South Africans are by now well aware of how close the country came to the abyss that many warned would never happen. It was a reality check for millions of people grown listless and numb to structural corruption. The thinking goes like this: if the guys at the top are able to loot without consequence, why not the rest of us?

As many have pointed out, it was an internal ANC battle that played out in the shopping malls and streets of Kwazulu-Natal and Gauteng, and it was armed citizens that saved the country.

Or, expressed more accurately, it was armed citizens of every colour and ethnicity – white, black, Indian and coloured – that did the job the police and army were unable to do. 

One of them was Nick Howarth, a former riot policeman and author of War in Peace: The Truth About the East Rand Riot Unit (a riveting read for those who imagine these terrifying days are behind us), who hastily convened a civilian militia to protect Umdloti, north of Durban, from mob attack.

“There were a few of us that had police or military training, but most had not,” says Howarth. “But the fact that we had set up road blocks and were armed was a definite deterrent. We know from intelligence we received from nearby townships that Umhloti and La Mercy were targeted for looting until the looters heard that there were armed civilians manning the entrances to the suburbs.”

There are also reports of gun dealers selling unlicensed firearms out of bakkies during the riots.

What does Howarth think of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill, and in particular its proposed restriction on access to firearms for purposes of self-defence?

“It’s dead in the water,” he says. “I would love to live in a country where guns were not needed, but South Africa is not that country – not now, at least. I’m keeping my gun.”

Here are some of the key proposed changes in the Bill:

  • No firearm licences for self-defence purposes (which looks like a Constitutional non-starter, unless the police Secretariate can convince the courts that it has miraculously rendered the country free of violence);
  • Limits on the number of firearm licences for occasional hunters and sports shooters;
  • No more private collection of firearms and ammunition;
  • New obligations to be imposed on gun access for the private security industry (which is reckoned to employ 1-1.5 million people in SA);
  • Ballistic sampling of firearms in possession of the private security industry;
  • Reduction in the amount of ammunition a licenced firearm owner may possess;
  • Create a Central Firearm Register under the police, and other administrative functions.

Speaking to the Centre for Risk Analysis, Martin Hood of law firm MJ Hood and Associates noted some serious problems with the current wording of the bill which, unless removed or changed, will face serious legal headwinds from gun advocates.

The security industry will have restricted access to firearms, limits will be placed on the number of firearms per person, access to firearms will be age-restricted, access to ammunition will be reduced for licenced gun owners.

Perhaps most disturbing about the draft Bill is that there was no consultation with civil society, nor any evidence of a proper economic impact assessment. The Ministry of Police claimed the bill was drafted based on research which has not been made available to the public, and there is no serious discussion about the impact this Bill will have on the security industry, nor the 900 licensed shooting ranges and 700 training centres, which Hood says will likely cease to exist if this Bill becomes law.

The Central Firearms Registry does not function, and previous amnesties were botched, resulting in thousands of guns that were handed in being sold to criminals.

It remains to be seen who commissioned the research that prompted this Bill, though there are bodies dedicated to reducing gun ownership, such as Gun Free SA, which says gun violence in SA has reached epidemic proportions. It welcomed the Draft Firearms Control Amendment Bill, and in particular:

“The alignment of the Firearms Control Act with global norms which do not recognise self-defence as a reason for gun ownership, as well as SA’s legal obligations

“The reliance on evidence that reducing access to firearms reduces gun violence

“The sharpening of provisions in the Act to facilitate its enforcement.

“All of us living in SA are grappling with ways to protect ourselves, our family, friends, colleagues and wider community from violent crime. The best way to do this is to use available evidence to make the most informed decision. The available evidence shows that reducing access to firearms helps make our homes, communities and country safer,” says Gun Free SA.

It cites the following table in support of its campaign to eliminate self-defence as a reason for gun ownership.

Gun Free SA then presents the following stats in making out its case for reducing gun ownership: Police annual reports consistently show that the majority of guns that are reported as lost or stolen were lost by or stolen from civilians. Of the 8,680 guns reported stolen or lost in 2019/20 (an average of 24 a day) 8,007 (92% or 22 a day) were owned by civilians and 673 were police owned.

South African research undertaken in two Johannesburg police precincts shows you are four times more likely to have your gun stolen from you than to use it in self-defence when being attacked.

For those a tad suspicious of Gun Free SA’s funders and motives, there is this somewhat dated article from Paratus, which points out some links to George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. Maybe harmless, but only if you think George Soros is a benign influence on the world, which is certainly open to question.

Gun advocates have a strong suspicion where the Police Ministry got its research, and they want to pull it apart, thread by thread. As we have seen in the US, gun control is hugely politicised, and you can pick whatever research you want to buttress your case.

Gun control advocates are playing the long game, so those who want to keep their guns had better brace themselves for what’s coming. In fact, they had better get organised, along with researchers to match the dodgy research that is pumped out by gun control advocates. Here’s just one example of how gun control research can so easily get twisted to fit a political cause.

Gun Free SA does not appear to have much popular support in SA, and the research it cites may just as well be an argument for more weapons training rather than handing over your guns. The DearSA stats around the campaign suggests the most contentious parts of the Firearms Control Amendment Bill are stillborn. But don’t imagine the government will rest on this one. It is always healthy to suspect the worst when governments are intent on restricting responsible gun ownership.

Ciaran Ryan

The Writer's Room is a curated by Ciaran Ryan, who has written on South African affairs for Sunday Times, Mail & Guardian, Financial Mail, Finweek, Noseweek, The Daily Telegraph, Forbes, USA Today, Acts Online and Lewrockwell.com, among others. In between he manages a gold mining operation in Ghana, and previously worked in Congo. Most of his time is spent in the lovely city of Joburg.