Two guns for self-defence, new bill says

Gun owners will be allowed to own a shotgun as well as a handgun for self-defence - and not only one weapon, as was previously mooted - in terms of the long awaited new Firearms Control Bill.

The move has been welcomed by the gun lobby and opposition parties, particularly the New National Party, which campaigned for more self-defence weapons after the first draft of the bill was released, but they say the bill still does not allow citizens enough weapons.

Gun-Free South Africa and other anti-gun groups have welcomed the new law, which aims to curb firearms and provides for tough new sentences for the unlicensed possession of firearms and ammunition.

The maximum sentence for the illegal possession of firearms has been increased from five to 15 years, and a sentence of 25 years can be imposed for the possession of prohibited firearms, such as automatic weapons. The bill also grants wider powers of search and seizure to the police to combat illegal weapons.

The bill empowers the minister of safety and security to declare places such as shebeens, pubs and schools, firearm-free zones.

There appeared to be some confusion about the number of firearms allowed for self-defence in terms of the new law, but Louis Kok, chief legal adviser to the office of the national commissioner of police, confirmed on Monday that the law does indeed make provision for two firearms. An additional two weapons are allowed for "occasional hunters".

The bill was delayed after concerns were expressed about clauses relating to the constitutionality of presumptions of guilt. This was chiefly related to the fact that, if for example, an illegal weapon was found in a taxi after a drive-by shooting then all people in the vehicle could have been presumed guilty of the offence if no one owned up to it.

The previous version of the bill had this reverse onus provision in that for some offences a person could be presumed guilty until proven innocent.

These provisions have been watered down in the new bill but it still limits the right to silence as a defence. In the case of the drive-by shooting a person cannot simply remain silent as a defence, but would have to provide a reasonable explanation as to how he or she was not involved in the shooting.

Police have experienced problems with legally obtaining fingerprints from suspects where the suspect was part of a group when a crime was committed.

In terms of the new bill, if say, a vigilante group kills a gang boss, police are empowered to take fingerprints and genetic samples from every member of the group suspected of being involved in the crime.

The bill also imposes stringent licensing and competency tests.

Another new feature is that firearm licences have to be periodically renewed.

This differs for various categories of weapons, but ranges from two to 10 years.

When licences are renewed applicants will have to motivate for the continued possession of a firearm. The minimum age for a firearm licence has been raised from 16 to 18 years.

NNP leader Marthinus van Schalkwyk said his party was glad that "a few improvements" had been made to the revised bill, but added it was clear that these improvements were designed as damage-control by the drafters to enable the certification of the bill by state law advisers.

"The fundamental philosophy of the bill remains flawed: It aims to control levels of violent crime by attempting to reduce the numbers of legal firearms available to responsible gun-owners," Van Schalkwyk said.

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