South African gun lobbyists were launching a new organisation on Thursday to press their case that more - not fewer - weapons are needed to curb crime in a country notorious for murders and armed robberies.

The outspoken executive director of Gun Owners of America, Larry Pratt, was drafted in to back demands for the scrapping of post-apartheid legislation restricting ownership of firearms.

"I can predict that the violent crime rate and murder will increase if this law continues to be implemented," Pratt told The Associated Press ahead of the inaugural meeting of Gun Owners of South Africa. "The only way to tackle this Wild West scenario is to allow the good guys to have guns ... The criminal in South Africa has too much freedom of action, too much job security."

South Africa's Safety and Security Ministry, which collected and destroyed nearly 100 000 unlicensed and 46 000 legally owned guns during a six-month amnesty last year, dismissed the claims.

"Very few countries subscribe to that way of thinking," said ministry spokesperson Trevor Bloem. "Gun control is here to stay across the world, including in the United States. Anything else would lead to chaos."

South Africa's 45 million people own an estimated 3,7 million licensed guns and many more illegal ones. Gun ownership is deeply embedded in the national culture - as is violence following decades of brutal government repression under white racist rule.

At the birth of all-race democracy in 1994, South Africa had the world's highest homicide rate - 67 per 100 000 population - largely because of violence in the country's impoverished and overcrowded townships. The rate fell to 40 per 100 000 in 2004, behind Colombia at 67 and Jamaica at 59 per 100 000. There are just six homicides per 100 000 in the United States, according to figures from the international police organisation Interpol.

Violence accounted for almost half the 25 000 fatal injuries in South Africa in 2003, according to a report by the Medical Research Council. More than 6 000 people died from gunshot wounds - nearly double the number killed in stabbings, and as many as those killed in road accidents, it said.

A separate report by the Institute for Democracy in South Africa said 19 percent of people it surveyed had suffered an attack on themselves or a family member last year, and 57 percent feared crime in their own homes.

The government has set a target of reducing violent crimes by between 7 percent and 10 percent a year through better policing and a clampdown on weapons.

The Firearms Control Act, which came into force in 1994, introduced licensing requirements and background checks on gun owners. It also raised the minimum age to 21 and limited ownership to one gun for self defence and up to four for occasional hunters. There is no limit for professional hunters and security members.

Charl van Wyk, head of the new Gun Owners of South Africa, said the bill was a "disgrace" which denied honest people the right to self-defence.

"We want the Firearms Control Act scrapped altogether, and we want a constitutional amendment to ensure we have the right to have firearms to protect our families," he said.

There has been particular disquiet among the gun-loving fraternity over lengthy delays in approval of licenses for new owners and the renewal of existing licenses. The hunting community is also up in arms over what it sees as a threat to its existence.

Van Wyk - who hit the headlines by returning fire on a group of attackers who shot dead 11 people in a church in 1993 - said the number of gun shops had plummeted from 600 to 200 in the last two years because of the legislation.

Pratt, whose organisation boasts 300 000 members in the United States, said Florida saw a big reduction in crime following the introduction of laws in 1987 allowing people to carry concealed weapons.

Professor Gavin Cawthra, director of the Centre for Defence and Security Management at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand, said the gun lobby relies on a "very selective use of statistics."

"South Africa has got very high rates of crime and it has got one of the highest rates of gun ownership in the world," he said. "Virtually every firearm owned by criminals was once legally owned by a non-criminal and it got lost or stolen." -