The dos and don’ts of owning a firearm

South Africa has strict legislation governing the licensing, purchase and use of a firearm. Magda du Toit explores the rules and official processes that regulate gun ownership, and speaks to experts in the field.

The dos and don’ts of owning a firearm
In South Africa, you need to specify what you will use a firearm for when applying for a licence. The categories include self-defence, sport and hunting (as seen here).
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
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The Constitution of South Africa clearly states that “everyone has the right to freedom and security of the person”. Security and personal protection are constantly on the mind of farmers in this country, as the vast majority of farms are in rural areas, far from help from the nearest South African Police Service (SAPS) unit. This is one reasons that many farmers own firearms.

However, obtaining a firearm in South Africa is a tedious process. Any person who wishes to legally own a firearm must first obtain a licence, which will specify whether the firearm is for self-defence, hunting or sport. A separate licence is needed for each firearm.

South Africa’s current firearm regulatory framework consists of the Firearms Control Act (No. 60 of 2000), as well as subsidiary legislation. Pieter Vorster, chairperson of Agri Letaba, points out that although there are many benefits of having a firearm and being able to defend oneself against criminals, the owner has to be aware of all the rules and regulations applicable to the use of firearms.

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According to the Firearms Control Act, certain requirements must be met before anyone can receive a firearm licence or even renew a licence.

How to apply for a licence
The first step is to receive training. During this process, you will be taught how to handle a gun and the conditions under which you are permitted to use the weapon. The training must be conducted by a government-accredited institution. Once it is completed, you will be given a proficiency certificate as proof that you have obtained the requisite knowledge to be able to handle a firearm.

The next step is to apply for a competency certificate. This requires that you complete the SAPS 517 application form, which must be submitted to the designated firearms officer (DFO) at your nearest police station. To obtain this certificate, you must meet the following criteria:

  • Be at least 21 years old. If not, you must supply convincing reasons why you are applying for a competency certificate or firearm licence.
  • Be a South African citizen or have a permanent residence permit.
  • Be mentally stable and fit.
  • Be free from any form of addiction to any substance such as drugs or alcohol.
  • Have no criminal record.

The next step is to fill in the firearm application form, SAPS 271. This must be submitted with a certified copy of the proficiency certificate you received, a certified copy of your ID or passport, and two recent passport-size colour photographs not older than three months.

How to renew an expired licence
SAPS recommends that you start the process of renewing your licence well before your current licence expires. If you are unsure of what to do, contact the DFO at your nearest police station. For a renewal, you will need to submit the following documents:

  • The original firearm licence.
  • The original training proficiency certificate.
  • The competency certificate from when you first applied for the firearm licence.
  • Four recent passport-size colour photographs.
  • You will also be asked to fill in an application for a competency certificate (SAPS 517) and an application for renewal of licence form (SAPS 517(e)).

Kobus Visser, director of rural safety and provincial affairs at Agri SA, says the police recently issued a directive that included guidelines to DFOs on how to process applications of firearm licences that have previously expired, and how to prevent these firearms from becoming prohibited firearms.

He points out that this directive now allows owners whose licences have expired to apply for new licences without having to hand in their firearms to the police for safekeeping while their applications are being processed. The applicant must comply with exactly the same requirements as those of a new firearm licence application, such as a valid competency certificate.

The directive follows the Constitutional Court judgment of 27 May 2022 in the case between the police and Fidelity, which started in the High Court, escalated to the Supreme Court of Appeal, and finally ended at the Constitutional Court. According to this ruling, any person who is in possession of a firearm with an expired licence is allowed to apply for a new licence for that firearm, and this is not limited to a licence for business purposes.

However, Visser stresses that, according to the Constitutional Court ruling, the possession of a firearm without a valid licence or other authority to possess a firearm remains unlawful and constitutes an offence.

The ruling further directs DFOs to accept and consider the application for new licences when submitted to the police by owners of firearms of which the licences had expired.

“It must be emphasised that these applications will follow the same process as a new application for a firearm licence. It is required that the applicant must physically present the firearm for which he or she intends to apply for a licence in a specific category, together with a copy of the expired licence to the DFO for inspection and validation. A verification certificate that is signed by both the applicant and the DFO will be issued.

“The firearm owner may take the firearm home and store it in an approved safe as regulated by the Firearms Control Act, but may not use it,” Visser explains.

The directive to all police stations is explicit in its instructions regarding the process and the timelines that the DFO and the Central Firearms Registry must follow in dealing with such applications.

The directive also deals with firearms from deceased estates. A copy of the executor’s letter and a copy of the licence or ID of the deceased must be attached.

Agri SA has welcomed the issuing of this instruction and guidelines on how the police should deal with applications of firearm licences that had previously expired. In a statement, Agri SA said this development brought relief for many members of the organisation and farmers who were firearm owners and might have forgotten to renew their firearm licences in time.

The Agri SA Centre of Excellence for Rural Safety emphasises that it is important that a firearm licence be renewed within the 90-day period before it expires, as prescribed by the Firearms Control Act.

Which firearm to choose
A number of firearm makes and models are available on the market. The best option for a potential buyer is to contact a reputable gun shop or training facility for more information about purchasing a new or used gun. If you are considering a second-hand firearm, it is particularly important to buy it from a registered and reputable seller, says Vorster.

Ideally, you should buy a firearm only from someone you know and trust. If you are using an online platform, it is extremely important to check the credentials and trustworthiness of the seller. Purchasing a firearm at a gun shop is the safest option, as you will be able to inspect the gun properly. He also offers the following advice when purchasing a gun:

  • The make and model: Visit a gun shop and talk to the experts. Go to a shooting range and talk to instructors. Ask to handle the firearm you’re considering to ensure that it feels comfortable in your hands.
  • Ask questions: Don’t shy away from asking questions about a specific firearm. Guns are expensive and a long-term investment.
  • Inspect the firearm: If you’re considering buying a second-hand gun, do a physical inspection. Take an expert along and look at the wear and tear. You don’t want to buy a firearm that could place yourself or others in danger.
  • Compare prices: Your research will give you an idea of the various options and the price of each gun. Make sure that you are getting value for money, especially if you’re buying the firearm second-hand. Compare the prices at different retailers. Also compare the price of a new firearm with that of a second-hand option. Sometimes the prices are close, and it might be better to buy a new firearm. Alternatively, you might strike a bargain with a good second-hand buy.
  • Gas guns: Buying a gas gun is another option. A gas gun is a non-lethal firearm that shoots pellets pneumatically with compressed air or other gases that are mechanically pressurised without involving any chemical reactions. But, Vorsters warns, if you are considering this option, you should know the legal requirements as well as the operating practices.

“Although gas guns don’t require a firearm licence, there are still provisions in the Firearms Control Act that treat the use and ownership of gas guns in the same manner as firearms,” Vorster points out. “The handling requirements are much the same as with a firearm: you may not cause bodily injury to any person or damage to property by using a gas gun in an irresponsible manner.”

Vorster stresses that the weapon should address your particular needs.

“Anyone who buys and owns a handgun for personal protection should know and trust it. Although the law requires that you do your proficiency training in order to apply for your competency certificate at SAPS, it is also important that you undergo effective defensive firearm training. Proficiency is only the first step to firearm ownership,” he says.

Protecting yourself
Although the law currently allows individuals to use force to protect their lives or property, it remains important to follow the law to the letter when you find somebody entering your property and home illegally, says Vorster.

“There are many stipulations in the Firearms Control Act specifying under which circumstances and how you are allowed to protect yourself and your family from trespassers and danger.”

It is only justifiable to shoot at an intruder in certain rare instances, usually in an imminent life-threatening instance when an intruder is attacking you or is armed with a gun and ready to shoot you.

“Shooting somebody just because you are scared is illegal. Being scared is not enough reason to shoot someone. Proper training can prepare you psychologically and physically to deal with these situations and to make split-second decisions in life-threatening situations.”

Derek Mathews, chairperson of Grain SA, warns that owning a firearm is not a safeguard against a farm attack. Mathews and his family were the victims of a household robbery in January 2020 when five armed suspects entered their home.

“We were instructed to lie down. Even if I’d had a gun, I would not have been able to prevent the robbery. I’m sure things would have gone in a different direction if there had been firearms in the house that day. I’d advise anyone that if you own a gun with the sole purpose of self-protection, you must know how to use it safely, and have it with you at all times when you are on the farm. To me, it’s more important to focus on general farm safety and preparedness. Make sure that you have a set of must-dos in place and practise these so that, when needed, you and your family will be able to execute these plans.”

Store your weapon safely
The Firearms Control Act states that leaving a firearm unattended is dangerous and irresponsible. According to the Act, a firearm and ammunition must be stored in a gun safe whenever they are not under the direct control of the licence holder. There are also specific requirements regarding the safe storage of your firearm.

“Make sure that you know what to do and that the firearm safe is installed correctly,” Vorster advises. According to the regulations stipulated in the Act, the correct type of safe, designed to store handguns and ammunition, must be mounted to a solid brick wall or concrete floor by at least two M10 x 80 anchor bolts, while a safe designed for storing rifles and ammunition should be mounted using at least four M10 x 80 anchor bolts.

“A gun safe must be SABS 953-1-approved to comply with the minimum required standard. A safe that is SABS-approved as a gun safe under the Type B category will already comply with the minimum requirements as set out by the South African Bureau of Standards [SABS]”.

Email Pieter Vorster at [email protected], Kobus Visser at [email protected], or
Derek Mathews at [email protected].