Gun enthusiasts waiting for their firearm licences may soon get some relief.
Police are working on improvements at the Central Firearms Register (CFR) to speed up the process.
National figures are not freely available, but Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said in a written reply to a Parliamentary question in October that about 58900 firearm renewal licence applications were outstanding in the Free State alone.
In the period April to August last year, 4874 renewal licences were approved, while 18409 were approved in the 2009/10 financial year in that province.
Applications outstanding for new firearm licences in the Free State for the same period total 12714.
This backlog, mirrored nationally according to gun and weapon owners’ associations and organisations, has not deterred him from sticking to his guns about the need for licensed firearms.
“Firearm control remains a key pillar in the fight against and reduction of crime in South Africa and processing and registration of weapons will continue,” Mthethwa said.
He was responding to an allegation by Gun Owners of South Africa (GOSA)that firearm licence applications were being refused “despite applicants being in compliance with all requirements”.
Gosa said: “Half of gun licence applications are being refused and applications for competency are being refused where applicants are in full compliance with all proficiencies as prescribed by law and have no disqualifying criminal records.”
Mthethwa maintains the organisation is premature in its comments on auditing improvements at CFR.
The minister added that he, his deputy (Maggie Sotyu) and national police commissioner Gen Bheki Cele last November “acknowledged the challenges” facing the registry.
“This approach was not a denial of the challenges but a corrective one and a nine-month turnaround plan for CFR operations was announced.
“As police leadership it would have been folly to assume a quick-fix solution. We remain confident progress is being made, notwithstanding some teething problems, which are being ironed out.”
Gun Free South Africa’s chairperson, Pam Crowsley, said her organisation had sympathy for the police but was adamant the Firearms Control Act was “a very necessary safety measure”.
“We know about problems at CFR and fully support the police in the changes they are making to speed up firearm licence renewals.
“We stand by the Firearms Control Act because owning a firearm is serious and there have to be checks and balances, such as competency testing, to ensure people are responsible enough to own firearms”.
On the number of illegal firearms in South Africa, Crowsley said estimates ranged from thousands to hundreds of thousands.
GunFacts SA (GFSA), a website supporting responsible gun ownership, maintains accurate figures are impossible to come by due to a lack of statistical base data, adding the number of illegally used firearms is growing.
“Theft and sale of weapons from state sources is growing as a result of straightforward theft and the actions of corrupt people employed in, among others, the SA National Defence Force.”
It also points out weapons caches hidden by the ANC prior to the 1994 election “remain hidden and that some must be the source of weapons now used in crime”.
Answering allegations of the Firearms Control Act being a “billion rand black hole” by Gosa, Mthethwa said one could never equate a cost in human lives when it came to fighting crime.
“The police ministry, in its endeavours to ensure proper control of firearms, is not informed by how much it would cost because our view is that no monetary value can supersede the protection of lives.”
The turnaround plan currently under way at the CFR includes reducing the licence processing backlog, eliminating corruption and irregular issuing of licences.
“It also includes redesigning of the registry system, IT and operations and, more critically, improving communications with all applicants on an ongoing basis.” He appealed to Gosa to support the ministry and not to prejudge processes still under way. “It remains the ministry’s goal to eliminate the scores of illegal firearms in the hands of criminals. This can significantly reduce crime.”