There is a strong, if entirely misguided conviction prevalent in many quarters of our society that achieving a gun-free South Africa is not only possible, but is in fact highly desirable. Such a belief is, of course, nothing more than an extravagant fantasy, and a dangerous one at that. I have extensively written about this subject (feel free to reference here, here, here, and here), yet I think it is appropriate to again take a broad view of this issue in an attempt to enlighten those who hold on to such unrealistic ideals.
Tracing the Source of the Problem
Depending on which estimates you choose to reference, we can approximate the amount of illicitly owned firearms in the RSA anywhere around the 4 000 000 mark. This is a difficult estimation to make, because criminals are understandably not in the habit of registering their unregistered firearms so that we can count them. Either way, 4 000 000 is a rather large number and since firearms are considered to be durable goods, we can be sure that unless these guns are confiscated and destroyed, they will be around for a good many decades to come.
It therefore stands to reason that if the SAPS are effective at confiscating and destroying unlicenced firearms, we should eventually be rid of all unlawfully held guns. That is, unless a reliable source of firearms keeps feeding into criminal hands. Such a development would put as firmly back at Square One. Again, and again, and again, ad infinitum.
Aha! Surely such a reliable source of firearms are the private, civilian gun owners? It is argued that if firearms were to be removed from their possession, then an important source of illicit weapons will be shut off. This is false for two very important reasons: 1) the fully-automatic weapons regularly used and preferred by criminals cannot be stolen from civilian firearm owners, and 2) the annual recovery rate of stolen firearms by the SAPS over the past three years (see page 26) have ensured that virtually every stolen firearm is recovered within a year of being reported as such.
This indicates that at best private citizens are a very limited, and very short-term source of arms for lawbreakers. Fortunately for the criminals, and very much unfortunately for society as a whole, there is no shortage of other sources of firearms which they can exploit, some of which provide them with fully-automatic military weapons and ammunition.
Considering that our Police Service and National Defence Force have been responsible for losing thousands of firearms over the years, some through negligence and others through criminality and corruption, the State has acted as a de facto supplier of arms and ammunition to the South African criminal element. Every R4 or R5 rifle that finds its way into criminal possession was originally the property of the State, not private owners. Let us also not forget about the hundreds of thousands of former Homeland firearms, many of which were fully-automatic military weapons, that have gone missing since 1994.
The State is far from the only source of military-grade small arms that criminals have access to. Struggle-era arms caches are still very much in existence in South Africa. It is not possible to determine exactly how many weapons were smuggled into the Republic during the Struggle (estimates range from 80 to over 100 tonnes), but a single British company, African Hinterland Safaris, were themselves responsible for trafficking over 40 tonnes of weapons into South Africa. During the Cold War our neighbouring countries were also saturated with munitions from the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, and Eastern Germany. Considering how porous and unguarded our borders are, it is no wonder that criminals here have easy access to AK47s and similar weaponry.
Modern firearms are also incredibly durable. Portuguese manufactured G3 battle rifles used in the Portuguese Colonial Wars of the 1960s are still in use in many African countries today, more than 60 years after their manufacture. Even more incredibly, Syrian rebel forces in 2012 managed to get a hold of over 5000 German Sturmgewehr 44s, all of which were serviceable and ready for use. This despite the fact that these rifles date from World War 2. The significance hereof is that arms caches and weapon stockpiles can easily be viable sources of illicit firearms for decades.
The Endless Vicious Cycle
One would think that when all the above facts are considered, the authorities would take the confiscation and destruction of firearms held by criminals very seriously indeed, and regard the duty as one of critical importance.
Sadly the reality of the situation paints a very different picture: endemic corruption within the SAPS has led to the State directly leaking confiscated arms back into criminal hands. Even worse, citizens who deemed it prudent to hand their firearms in for destruction (thanks in no small part to a campaign by Gun-Free South Africa encouraging them to do so) had those exact weapons transferred to criminals by corrupt members of the SAPS. A single recent example of this is the conviction of ex-SAPS Colonel Chris Prinsloo who sold firearms due for destruction to Cape gangs.
When it first came to light that the SAPS were leaking so-called “amnesty” weapons to criminals, I took great exception to Gun-Free South Africa’s feigned ignorance regarding the prevalence of corruption within the SAPS, and that they refused to take any responsibility for their role in pushing citizens in surrendering their weapons. To date nobody from GFSA has accepted any responsibility. The road to Hell is paved with good intentions, but that clearly doesn’t mean anyone has to apologise once the Devil has had his due.
The ultimate result is that many weapons handed in to the SAPS, or confiscated by them, find their way back into criminal possession. It remains a major problem, and has not even come close to being rectified. There is therefore an endless vicious cycle of criminals gaining access to firearms, which are at some point confiscated by the authorities, which are then at another point leaked back into criminal hands by corrupt members of the authorities, which then starts the process anew.
The End of the Pipe Dream
It should by now be clear that keeping firearms out of criminal hands is a very complex problem with no obvious nor simple solutions. If one had to seriously pursue the ideal of a gun-free society, the powers-that-be will be obligated to somehow figure out a way to disarm all the criminals, all the law-abiding citizens, the entire police service, the entirety of the armed forces, and every security company simultaneously less we run the risk of having any firearms circulate back into criminal possession.
In the highly unlikely event that this endeavour should succeed, we would then have to go to further lengths to ensure that firearms cannot ever enter the country. This will require an impenetrable barrier to be constructed all along our borders to the extent that would make even Donald Trump blush. The authorities will then also have to inspect every last centimetre of each and every shipping container that enters port to ensure no firearms are smuggled in. The same screening will have to be vigorously and unfailingly applied at every other place of entry into the country, be they airports or border crossings. No small feat considering our entire police service numbers but 151 000-odd members in total.
Additionally all forms of domestic manufacturing of firearms and ammunition should be confiscated and destroyed, including any metal working facilities, 3D printers, and any production of chemical agents that can be used as propellant. If this is not carried out, then miscreants will manufacture home-made firearms and ammunition, which would instantly give them the upper hand, and destroy the gun-free status of our nation.
All these tasks will presumably be carried out by police who are themselves entirely disarmed.
I do not think I need to further expand on why everything mentioned above is beyond hyperbolically ridiculous.
A gun-free society is impossible. It cannot be done, it has never been done, and it will never be done. What we are in fact arguing about, is to what extent we desire a gun-restricted society. The bitter irony of this is that people who claim themselves to be “gun-free” orientated are in fact very fond of firearms, as long as they are in the hands of the State. The same people who frequently decry police brutality, and who refer to SAPS members as “murderers” who massacred innocents at Marikina, are more than happy to see the very police they so despise and distrust as the only armed members of society.
Because if you cannot save yourself, you will hope that somebody with a gun will come and do it on your behalf. Even if you hate them.