Suspects wanted in connection with a series of mall robberies.

Cape Town - Canal Walk will eject anyone carrying a gun – even legal firearm owners – as it hikes up security measures after a series of armed heists at the mall.

Police said 20 suspects had been arrested and others identified from camera footage of over 15 mall robberies in the Cape this year – four of which targeted Canal Walk.

The centre’s security is conducting stop-and-searches that have legal firearm owners up in arms and calling for a boycott of the mall.

In an incident on Sunday, five men were searched in their car and denied entry after security received a tip-off from a shopper that they were armed.

Canal Walk centre manager Vanessa Herbst confirmed the incident.

Herbst said that after the tip-off police and security were called to the parking area, near the Pick n Pay entrance, where the car was parked. She said upon being searched it was found that both the firearm and vehicle were licensed, but their owners were turned away due to the mall’s no-firearms policy.

In Canal Walk’s published “House Rules”, firearms are not on the list of items prohibited from the internal areas of the mall, but are listed under “forbidden in the common areas and external areas of the mall”.

Chief executive Gavin Wood said the no-firearms rule had always been the case, even if it wasn’t strictly enforced.

“Similar to most shopping centres in the Western Cape we have always had a no-firearm policy with appropriate signage at our entrances,” Wood said.

“While this policy has not been strictly enforced, in light of the current crime we believe it is in the best interest of our shoppers.”

While the mall has not been declared a gun-free zone in terms of the Firearms Control Act, Wood said the centre was exercising its discretion as a private entity.

“It is our understanding that as a private property, we are permitted to implement reasonable restrictions upon entry provided these are appropriately communicated to our customers.”

He apologised for the inconvenience to legal firearm owners, but said the majority of shoppers would understand the need for the ban.

A post about random security searches received over 2 600 likes on the Canal Walk Facebook page.

The “Firearm Owners Boycott Canal Walk” Facebook group has 389 members.

The social media-driven campaign began with a press release by the Confederation of Hunting Associations of SA calling on firearm owners to boycott Canal Walk.

“No security officer has any right to search you or your possessions without consent and does not have any lawful right to take possession of a firearm and to store it,” the confederation’s statement read. “If you are therefore subject to a demand that you be searched prior to entering any premises, you have the right to decline to be searched but in turn the owner of the premises can prevent you from entering the premises.”

Confederation of Hunting Associations of SA spokesman Martin Hood said the organisation respected Canal Walk’s right to have its own view on firearm ownership, but could not let this decision go unchallenged.

Hood said more legal gun owners carrying their weapons in malls would put criminals off from attacking. “There is ample evidence to support the argument that the presence of legal firearms is a deterrent against criminals, and that gun-free areas present better opportunities for criminals.”

For gun owner and boycotter Gideon Joubert, the right to carry a gun has nothing to do with being a hero in a heist situation – it’s his “insurance policy” against personal harm to him and his wife.

“We’re average shoppers like everyone else,” Joubert said. “If there’s a shooting, we’ll be running in the opposite direction like everybody else. I’m not there to play Rambo.”

He said the searches intensified an already-hostile attitude that seemed to prevail against legal gun owners.

“You’re treated like an escapee from a leper colony.”

Joubert said that while the boycott would not make much of a dent in Canal Walk’s profits, it was about the symbolism, because the searches prevented legal gun owners from carrying out their rights and responsibilities.

“If you own a firearm and you want to be responsible, you’ll probably carry the thing on you as much as you can,” he said. “It’s a safety policy – it’s no use to you when it’s somewhere you can’t get to it.”

That leaves gun carriers in a predicament when they arrive to shop at Canal Walk, as it is illegal to leave your gun in your vehicle.

“Generally what is done, like at Grand West, is you have a lock-up facility which is certified,” Joubert said. That way, firearm owners can leave their weapons in a secure and legal safe. But no such facility is available at Canal Walk.

Joubert decided to vote with his feet.

“It’s not a big deal for me personally – I can go shop somewhere that I’m not subjected to this kind of thing. As long as (my gun) is concealed and no one knows it’s there, it’s no problem. You can buy your groceries and go on your merry way.”

Police spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel André Traut said various initiatives and tactics had been applied in dealing with the mall robberies ahead of the festive season. He said police, mall managements and Business Against Crime were in ongoing talks, sharing information and identifying risk factors.

“The engagement entails the identification inhibiting factors such as the wearing of caps and hoods by suspects when these robberies are perpetrated, the maintenance of camera equipment and standardisation of surveillance cameras.”

Traut said preliminary investigations suggested the perpetrators behind these robberies were a group, comprising mainly of African males, who have had previous run-ins with the law. Therefore, perpetrators had since moved to executing high-value item robberies, which are considered less of a risk compared to cash-in-transit and ATM robberies.

On Friday, four men, aged from 30 to 40, were arrested in a foiled robbery in Parklands, just a few metres from a cellphone shop in Sandown Road.

Traut said: “Four armed suspects were arrested in close proximity of a cellular store in possession of illegal firearms. Their involvement in previous armed robberies is currently under investigation.”

* Anyone with information, or who can assist police with the whereabouts or identification of the suspects in the mall robberies should contact Captain Charl Kinnear on 082 820 8015. All information will be treated as confidential.

Cape Argus