Pretoria - In a judgment seen as groundbreaking by gun owners unable to have their licences renewed because of a conviction for an offence such as driving while exceeding the alcohol limit, a Pretoria High Court judge has said the use of alcohol in itself is not an abuse.
“It is the use of alcohol in conjunction with other factors that may make the use an abuse, such as overimbibing alcohol or the use of alcohol to gain Dutch courage to commit an offence such as reckless driving or the reckless handling of a firearm,” Acting Judge JRG Polsen said.
The abuse of alcohol must be relevant and connected to the use of a firearm before the authorities could refuse to renew a gun owner’s licence, the judge said.
“Clearly an alcoholic or a drug addict would be incompetent to possess a firearm because of their unpredictability when under the influence of alcohol or a habit-forming drug on which they had become dependent,” said the judge.
He ordered that the head of the firearms register issue professional hunter Robbert Timcke with a competency certificate so that he could have his gun licences renewed.
Timcke was banned for life from possessing a firearm after he was convicted in 2006 and fined R2 000 for driving while exceeding the blood-alcohol limit.
He was told that he was no longer fit to possess a firearm licence in terms of the Firearms Control Act as he had been convicted of the abuse of alcohol.
But Judge Polsen said a person must first be declared unfit by the court to be refused a firearm licence.
A court may deviate from this if it is justified following an inquiry into the circumstances of the conviction.
The circumstances of each case would determine the fitness or otherwise of the gun owner to possess a firearm licence, the judge said.
An example was when a person uses a gun to ward off an attack by another person and, in doing so, exceeded the bounds of self-defence, leading to a culpable homicide conviction.
“The question is whether such a person is now unfit to possess a firearm simply because of his conviction. I think not. Under certain circumstances firearms may be used for self-defence.”
Although driving a vehicle while exceeding the blood-alcohol level was an offence, it did not fit the description of abuse of alcohol.
A person who abused alcohol while knowing that he or she still had to drive, intentionally contravened the road traffic regulations.
“To render such a person automatically unfit to possess a firearm, without supporting legislation, is improper and it impugns on such a person’s right to own a firearm.”
These people, although contravening the law, were not all unfit to possess a firearm, especially when a firearm did not enter the scene.
“Many of us ordinary individuals can adhere to the adagio ‘There but by the grace of God go I’.”
The judge concluded that the character of a person was reflected in the person’s handling of a firearm when maintaining it, handling it and keeping it safe.