By Marnus Kamfer
Firearm amnesty. Words that have created a plethora of questions and a real rumpus among firearm owners.
While Police Minister Bheki Cele has already applied for a firearm amnesty period – following the expiry of the previous period on 31 May 2020 – there still are many questions that puzzle many people.
Why can’t the police simply extend the existing amnesty period? Why do I have to hand in my firearm if I’m going to apply for a new licence for the same firearm? What happens to the firearm that I do not want and hand in at the police? Why does the process take so long?
All these questions are answered in the Firearms Control Act, No 60 of 2000. Section 139 of the Act prescribes the process to be followed for the declaration of an amnesty, who is responsible for it and the conditions relating to such amnesty.
Section 139(1) provides that an amnesty must be declared by notice in the Government Gazette. This may happen only if the amnesty may result in the reduction of the number of illegally possessed firearms and if it is in the public interest to do so. Section 139(2) provides that the notice in the Government Gazette will only be valid if it is approved by Parliament. The said notice must specify the period of the amnesty and the conditions under which amnesty may be granted.
To get Parliament’s approval, the application and the necessary supporting documentation must be submitted to the Speaker of the National Assembly and to the Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces. The relevant portfolio committees also have to be consulted before it may be referred to the National Council of Provinces and ultimately to the National Assembly for approval. So, the Minister of Police cannot simply declare or extend a period of amnesty on his own.
Section 139(3) states that a person who makes use of the amnesty may not be prosecuted for having been in possession of an unlicensed firearm and ammunition.
Section 139(4), furthermore, offers a person handing in a firearm during the period of amnesty an opportunity to apply for a licence for such firearm. If the application is granted, the person may then collect the firearm from the police. If a person applies for a firearm licence in this way it would be advisable to call in an expert to ensure that the motivation accompanying the application contains all necessary information and evidence, which will considerably improve the chances of a successful application.
These experts usually have so much faith in their abilities and experience that they may even undertake to handle the appeal procedure on behalf of the applicant should the application fail.
Section 139(5) provides that the Registrar (for purposes of the Act it is the National Commissioner of Police, in terms of section 123 of the Act) must dispose of the firearms handed in, and where there is no application for a licence, as prescribed. The process usually followed is prescribed in section 136 of the Act. The Registrar must, by notice in the Government Gazette, indicate that he/she intends destroying firearms and ammunition that have been handed in. No compensation is payable to the former owner of the firearm. A person who feels that he has valid reasons to reclaim the firearm must, within 21 days of publication in the Government Gazette, submit those reasons to the Registrar, who must consider such reasons. If the Registrar is satisfied that the reasons are adequate, the firearm must be returned to the person. If not, the Registrar will proceed to destroy the firearm.
Because of pending litigation and uncertainty regarding the SAPS, who at this stage refuse to consider applications for the renewal of expired firearm licences, the amnesty period appears to be an attractive option for many firearm owners with expired licences, because such owners may apply afresh for a licence for the firearm involved during the period of amnesty. If such an application is successful the owner will again have a licence that will be valid for several years.
The Minister of Police has applied for a further period of amnesty following the expiry of the last period, which was announced on 27 October 2019 and lasted from 1 December 2019 to 31 May 2020. Good progress is being made with this process and there is likely to be another amnesty period soon.