We Need To Stop Distinguishing Between Legal And Illegal Firearms


A common argument (its more of a retort or attempt at a rallying cry) when the issue of firearm regulation comes up, is to say something like: “worry about me when you deal with the illegal firearms out there in the hands of criminals”.

This is more harmful than helpful, and gun owners and liberty minded people need to stop saying things like this. I must state my point of departure for this article here, and I have two points in this regard. First, I do not believe that it is possible to control criminal possession of firearms. Second, I do believe that it is possible to control mentally unsuitable possession of firearms.

Turning to the title of this article and my first point of departure, we must stop trying to distinguish between illegal and legal firearms as if it helps the cause of liberty. It is detrimental, and the reason for this is that the argument will always be bandied about by the anti-gun bunch, that illegal firearms exist because of legal firearms that are stolen or lost. Therefore, we can solve the illegal firearm problem by strictly controlling the legal firearms. In the case of South Africa, this is absurd.

The first thing to note is that according to the Central Firearms Registry (CFR), there were 2,778,073 firearms on the registry at the end of 2017. I know this because I filed a Promotion of Access to Information request (PAIA). These are the ‘legal guns’ many refer to. An ‘illegal gun’ is one that does not reflect on the registry today, and never has in the past. Depending on the source, there are estimated to be anywhere between 2.5 million to 3.5 million illegal guns in circulation in South Africa. One source even put the estimated number at 11 million.

In the same PAIA request, I asked how many previously unregistered firearms were recovered in the years spanning from 2007 until 2017. Over that ten-year period, the police recovered 29,682 such firearms. This equates to about 3,000 firearms recovered per year. At that rate of recovery, it will take 833 years to recover all 2.5 million estimated unregistered firearms. Or 1,166 year to recover all 3.5 million such firearms. Or 3,666 years to recover all 11 million such firearms. This of course assumes no new illegal shipments are coming into the country, which is of course not the reality.

With this in mind, do you as the reader honestly believe the legal versus illegal distinction helps anyone except the anti-gun brigade? This is just one reason that I do not support a registry of all firearms. Such an effort only serves to subject law-abiding people to the tyranny of bureaucrats and politicians who wish to embark on the literally impossible mission of eradicating illegal firearms in the world. These people will do whatever damage they deem necessary to accomplish this mission, and never actually accomplish it.

Further, the cost of a registry is astronomical. According to another PAIA request of mine, the registry cost R161,462,230 to maintain for the 2016/2017 financial year. The results of the number and costs of Designated Firearm Officers around the country is still pending. Even beyond that, there are hidden and implicit costs to both that are difficult to quantify. That much money would be far better utilised in putting competent patrolling police officers on the streets of Manenberg and other hotspot areas, with working vehicles, good equipment, and good uniforms.

Before closing, I should explain my second statement from my two points of departure. There are law-abiding citizens who may not otherwise be good people in the world. A good example would be a physically abusive spouse that while committing the crime of assault (even grievous bodily harm) against their partner, would not go through the effort of illegally obtaining a firearm. Legislation could bar such people from obtaining a firearm and successfully achieve this. Unfortunately, the life of said partner is not guaranteed despite this. There is little controversy that such people should not be allowed to own any kind of weapon, but again the effectiveness of preserving life is questionable.

What are your thoughts as the reader on this article? Does South Africa really need a comprehensive registry if there are more firearms off of it than on it, and especially at that cost? We can certainly encourage and promote responsible firearm ownership through law, but I am wholly unconvinced we can actually target criminals or even impact the homicide rate if we did eradicate the mentioned illegal firearms. In a future article, I will address my reasoning for saying that firearms do not significantly affect homicide rates, if at all. For now though, just mull the contents of this article over a little bit.