Critical analysis (v) Sources of Illegal Guns

Articles to help you counter hoplophobic arguments.

Moderator: GenMod

Critical analysis (v) Sources of Illegal Guns

Postby Martin_tu » Sun, 2006-05-28 13:48


The most basic supposition upon which the case for strict gun control is based is the presumed causal relationship between high rates of civilian gun ownership and criminal violence. If it can be shown that civilian gun ownership is one of the causes (at least an enabling condition if not a root cause) of violent crime, then strict gun control may be a justifiable policy response.

Before examining whether a statistical correlation between civilian gun ownership and violent crime can actually be demonstrated, it is important to understand the rationale behind the claim. One important factor is the leakage of legal firearms into illegal circulation.

There are in excess of 4.5 million registered firearms in South Africa. About 3.5 million (78.2 percent) are registered to private individuals, approximately 10 percent to government departments and about 2 percent to security firms and companies.1 In addition to this, state security forces possess about 5 million firearms.2

Estimates of illegal gun ownership vary from 1 to 8 million, but the real figure remains unknown.3 In March 1997, Mr. Mufamadi, the then Minister of Safety and Security, stated in Parliament that less than 0.05 percent of legal/licensed firearm owners are responsible for firearm crime.4 (Presumably he was alluding to the number of licensed firearm owners that had been convicted of firearm related offences).

Whilst that figure is probably an underestimation given the low rate of detection and conviction of certain crimes in South Africa, the Department of Safety and Security confirmed that relatively few licensed firearm owners use their own weapons to perpetrate offences.5

It can therefore, be assumed that those who are not licensed by the state to possess a firearm present the real threat of firearm-related crime and violence.6

1 Central Firearm Registry cited in Chetty, "Firearm Distribution in South Africa," 32.
2 McKenzie, "Domestic Gun Control Policy," 22.
3 Sarah Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons in South Africa," in Society Under Siege, ed. Virginia Gamba, 11.
4 Adrian Louw. "Submission Regarding the New Draft South African Firearms Bill B34-2000." (3 June 2000) < (03/08/2000).

Informal telephonic interview with an official from the Department of Safety and Security, 7 December 2000. 6 This is with the notable exception of those felons convicted of serious offences, found by the Joint Investigation Task Team to be in possession of firearm licenses. Minnaar, "A Plague of Guns," 23.

It is logical that those who concern themselves with licensing regulations are unlikely to have premeditated criminal intent. This is based on the assumption that those who habitually engage in criminal activity would pay little attention to licensing requirements. Also, seeing that licensed guns can be traced back to the owners, licensing a weapon that one personally intends to use in a crime, is completely irrational.

It is possible that a licensed firearm owner may commit a crime in a fit of rage or passion, but based on Mr. Mufamadi's assertion, that seems to be infrequent. In the small number of cases where legal firearm owners do commit firearm crimes, it is usually a case of domestic abuse.7

It would appear then, that if there is a correlation between civilian gun ownership and violent crime, it is not because licensed gun owners are committing firearm felonies. While a licensed firearm in the hand of a violent spouse is by no means to be discounted, statistically the greatest threat is posed by felons who commit murders, attempted murders and armed robberies (See chapter 3) with firearms they are not licensed to possess. Therefore, of paramount importance is the question of how weapons are illegally acquired.

The sources of illicit firearms can be classified as internal or external. Internal sources would include privately owned firearms and state owned weapons, while external sources come from across South Africa's borders. The ratio between illegal weapons from internal and external sources is fluid and shifts according to availability and market demand.8

Prior to 1994, the main source of illicit arms was external to South Africa and the arms entered the country primarily by means of weapons smuggling.9 Internally there was very little leakage of civilian owned firearms into illegal pools.10 The main internal source of illicit arms was state armouries with an estimated five million security force guns passing into civilian hands during the apartheid years.11

7 Informal telephonic interview with an official from the Department of Safety and Security, 7 December 2000. 3 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 17.
9 Id.
10 According to the Commissioner of Police, The Annual Report, 1993 in Hansson, "Guns and Control," 69-70.
11 Interdepartmental Strategy Team, NCPS, 31.

Some argue that in recent years there has been a shift away from external sources of illicit arms to internal sources, most notably civilian owned firearms.12 Currently, the leakage of licensed civilian firearms into illegal markets is a very contentious issue and a pivotal point in the gun control debate.

In South Africa between 1994 and 1998, 99 409 firearms were reported stolen and 13 283 lost, including those lost or stolen from the police and defence force. This brings the total number lost and stolen during this period to 112 692. In 1998 alone, there were approximately 35 000 firearms lost and stolen, with 6224 cases of negligent loss of a firearm involving 6400 firearms.13

Given that there are 4.5 million licensed firearms in South Africa, firearms that are lost or stolen every year amount to approximately 1 percent of all registered firearms.14

However, in all likelihood these figures are an underestimation of the true number of firearms lost or stolen.15 Because negligent loss of a firearm is a punishable offence, a number of firearms lost and stolen may remain unreported. However, the fact that a case docket is required for insurance purposes may ameliorate this tendency and encourage insured complainants to report the loss or theft.16 A considerable percentage of these are recovered by the police and returned to the owners.

Care should be taken when comparing figures relating to the loss, theft and robbery of guns. Changes in police classifications may affect these figures relative to one another. Also, in cases where the incident is reported, the complainant may report the firearm as stolen rather than lost to avoid culpability.17 Despite this reporting tendency possibly skewing the figures, it does appear that robbery of firearms has been increasing steadily from 1996 onwards.18

12 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 17.
13 Chetty, "Firearm Distribution in South Africa," 39.
14 Anthony Altbeker, "Are South Africans Responsible Firearm Owners? Evidence form 1000 Dockets" (Unpublished Research Report commissioned by Gun Free South Africa, 2000), 9.
15 Ettienne Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in South Africa: Tracking Sources," in Nedcor ISS Crime Index no. 2 1999 (^/ol%203%20No%202/Firearms.html) (26/07/00).
16 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 16.
17 Robbery of a firearm is distinguished from theft by the perpetrator employing violence or the threat thereof and necessitates a confrontation between victim and perpetrator.
18 Chetty, "Firearm Distribution in South Africa." 40-41.

Unfortunately, there are no reliable composite figures available that distinguish between firearms lost or stolen from individual civilians, gun dealers or collectors, private security officers, the SAPS, the SANDF and government departments. However, it is estimated that 8500 firearms are lost or stolen annually from the SAPS and SANDF combined.

Even if this is a conservative estimate, that leaves approximately 25 000 firearms that must have been lost or stolen from civilian sources including the private security industry. The Department of Safety and Security estimates the total number of weapons stolen from civilians currently in the illegal pool to be at 150 000.19 What proportion of these civilians are private individuals as opposed to private security officers or gun dealers is unknown but entirely relevant.

Altbeker maintains that there are only two plausible reasons behind most firearm theft and robberies. Either the firearm is going to be used in the commission of a crime or it is going to be sold to someone else most probably for criminal use. In either case it seems inevitable that a stolen firearm will be used for criminal purposes. Comparing the number of stolen firearms with the number of violent crimes committed with firearms, Altbeker comes to the conclusion that "the loss of legally owned weapons contributes significantly to the number of violent crimes committed in South Africa." 20

Therefore, it appears that a significant number of civilian firearms are entering illegal pools. It is most likely that many of these are used in the perpetration of crimes. Thus, reducing the number of firearms in the possession of the law-abiding public would deprive the criminal element of a ready source of weapons. However, there are several sources other than private civilians, from which criminals may obtain their arms.

19 Hennop. "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 25.
20 Altbeker, "Are South Africans Responsible Gun Owners ?," 7-8.


State controlled weapons include all those carried by the SANDF, the SAPS and government departments that carry arms, both in the current and previous dispensation.21

As part of its policy to prevent the spread of communism, the apartheid regime armed factions in Angola and Mozambique with South African weapons.22 The end of the civil war in Mozambique and the periods of cease-fire in Angola meant a decrease in the demand for weapons in these countries. This resulted in a huge release of firearms onto the black market, which flooded back into South Africa. However, the resumption of conflict in Angola and the DRC has again diverted illicit arms to these regions. As a result, obtaining arms from outside South Africa has become more difficult and consequently, criminals are looking more to internal sources.23

Under the previous regime, the government also supplied arms to the "independent homelands" and their security forces, government officials, traditional leaders and militia. The large majority of these were military weapons, which were distributed without accurate records being kept.24 In 1993, the Goldstone Commission found that the Kwa-Zulu Natal police did not even know the number of weapons in their possession.25

Many of the weapons issued to officials in the former homelands were not returned when the 'states' were incorporated into South Africa.26 Alarmingly 38 percent of the weapons belonging to the Transkei Defence Force armoury remain unaccounted for.27

21 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms: Tracking Sources," 13.
22 Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons," 5.
23 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 17.
24 Network Of Independent Monitors and Gun Free South Africa, "Weapons Proliferation in South Africa with a Particular Focus on Proliferation of Illegal Small Arms in Kwa-Zulu Natal" (Unpublished Research Project commissioned by Gun Free South Africa: Johannesburg 1998), 22.
25 Minnaar, "A Plague of Guns", 25.
26 Ibid., 24.
27 SAPS, "Firearms in South Africa: An Escalating Problem," Firearms Investigations Unit, 1995 cited in Besdziek, "Into the Breech." 18.

As late as the 1990s, the apartheid regime was still arming Inkatha members in an attempt to undermine the consolidation of the ANC. Inkatha vigilantes were trained as hit squads and incited to instigate violence specifically in Kwa-Zulu Natal and on the Rand.28 An estimated sixty tons of weapons, ammunition and explosives were supplied to Inkatha in 1992 alone. Despite several arms caches being located and destroyed, these constitute only a fraction of the total number of weapons believed to remain hidden.29

The tumultuous period of the transition to democracy and its aftermath, saw considerable leakage of state controlled weapons into the hands of illegal owners. In addition to the discreet and often undetected casual pilfering of state stockpiles, more brazen thefts from state armouries were carried out by well-organised groups including gangs and vigilante groups. Between January and June 1999,38 assault rifles, 24 shotguns and 32 pistols were stolen from police stations in the Western Cape alone.30

In addition to the assaults on police stations, police and defence force personnel are specifically targeted both on and off duty for their guns. In 1998 alone, the official number of firearms that were either lost or stolen from the police force was reported to be 1775.31 The Institute for Security Studies estimates that in the post-apartheid period approximately 8500 weapons are stolen from the police and defence force annually.32 The Department of Safety and Security puts the total number of firearms in illegal circulation that were obtained from state armouries in the past and present, at 200 OOO.33

28 TRC Hearings cited in Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons," 9.
291 Powell et al., "Ngcuka Guns for IFP Hardliner," in Mail and Guardian, 14-20 May 1999, cited in Meek
"Transition and Illegal Weapons," 9.
30 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 25.
31 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms: Tracking Sources."
32 Virginia Gamba and Martinho Chachiua, "Small Anns Proliferation in Southern Africa: An Overview," in ed. Martinho Chachiua, Arms Management Programme- Operations Rachel 1996-1999 Monograph no. 38 (June 1999)( ... tents.html). 33 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 25.


During the period of the liberation struggle, many illegal weapons were smuggled into the county from Mozambique and Angola by freedom fighters such as Umkhonto we Sizwe and illegal migrants. Between 1987 and 1992, MK smuggled in an estimated thirty tons of weapons and ammunition into South Africa.34 Poor border control and lax policing at points of entry, made weapons smuggling relatively easy and firearms became freely available. Particularly during the 1980s there was a large-scale resort to arms as self-defence units in the townships positioned themselves to take on the might of the apartheid state.35

Subsequent to democratisation these units became superfluous and many of those who had found their identity and purpose in the fight against apartheid became ready recruits for criminal syndicates given the scarcity of gainful employment and the lack of meaningful alternative social groupings. These recruits, including previous APLA and MK operatives, retained their weapons, many of which have been used in bank robberies and cash-in-transit heists.36

Many arms caches created by the liberation movements are still unaccounted for and are finding their way into illegal circulation in South Africa.37

Despite the probability that politically motivated weapons smuggling has decreased since the end of the liberation struggle, organised syndicates continue to ply their trade. Subsequent to democratisation, these smuggling routes were increasingly utilised by criminal elements to obtain arms.38 Weapons currently smuggled into South Africa include those previously distributed by the apartheid state in the region as well as weapons smuggled in through air and sea ports from the U.S., China and Eastern Europe.39

34 S. Brummer, "Mk's Secret Weapon: A Bundu Bashing Safari," in Electronic Mail and Guardian, 19 June 1997, cited in Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons," 8.
35 Minnaar, "A Plague of Guns," 24.
36 Id.
37 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 17.
38 Id.
39 Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons," 6.

Joint operations with the Mozambican Police have had some success, but weapon smuggling persists across South Africa's porous borders.40 As long as there is an unsaturated demand for firepower in South Africa, weapons smugglers will continue to find a way to supply.41


In South Africa private security personnel outnumber police personnel by two to one. In January 2000 there were 4 856 registered security companies with 163 545 security personnel.42 However, there are approximately another 100 000 unregistered security guards not regulated by the Security Officers Board.43 The control over the issue of weapons is lax and many firearms go missing.44 However, the exact number of firearms lost or stolen from private security firms remains unknown.


There is little information available regarding home-made firearms and their use in crime. Home-made weapons are usually only utilised by their manufacturer and not often circulated among different users. In 1998, 3066 home-made firearms were recovered by the police, but it is estimated that there are tens of thousands illegally owned.45


There are many questions concerning the illegal sourcing of firearms in South Africa that remain unanswered. Exactly what proportion of firearms are obtained from particular categories of legal firearm owners can only be estimated. The extent of the illegal trade in unlicensed arms is unknown as well as the ease with which criminals could obtain firearms from an alternative source should current pools dry up. What is known is that a substantial number of firearms are lost or stolen from civilian sources. The SAPS are responsible for a smaller number, but the ratio of firearms lost or stolen to the number of firearms owned by the police is greater than the ratio for civilian taken as a group.46

40 Hennop. "Illegal Firearms: Tracking Sources."
41 Meek, "Transition and Illegal Weapons," 6.
42 Criminal Justice Monitor in Nedcor ISS Crime Index vol. 4 no 1 (Jan/Feb 2000) ( Index/No.% 201%202000/CJM.html) (26/07/00).
43 G. Mills and G. Oosthuysen, "Weapons Control is Right Out of Control." in The Saturday Star. 4 November 1995, cited in Besdziek, "Into the Breech," 23.
44 Minnaar, "A Plague of Guns," 25.
45 Hennop, "Illegal Firearms in Circulation," 29.

It is essential that every effort be made to eliminate the leakage of legal firearms into illegal circulation. Limiting civilian gun ownership would certainly reduce a ready source of arms for the criminally inclined. However, there are already a large number of illegal firearms in circulation and a number of different sources from which arms can be acquired. Thus, it cannot be assumed that effective control measures on privately owned firerms would necessarily deprive criminals of access to firearms.

Also, it is important to acknowledge that the level of legal civilian gun ownership does not necessarily determine the level of leakage of legal firearms into illegal pools. As Altbeker, points out, firearms are most likely to be lost by those who have only recently acquired their licence to possess a firearm.47

Where a mature and responsible culture of gun ownership prevails, criminal misuse of legal firearms is rare 4S and the leakage of civilian firearms into illegal circulation, negligible.

46 National Firearms Forum, "Submission on the Firearms Control Bill B34 -2000." ( (03/08/2000).
47 Altbeker, "Are South Africans Responsible Firearm Owners," 11.
48 Juan de Greef, "The Role of NGO's in the Control of Light Weapons: A Case Study of the South African Gun Owners Association," in Society Under Siege, ed. Virginia Gamba, 231-232.
"I'd rather have a gun and not need it than vice versa."
Posts: 84
Joined: Thu, 2006-02-02 13:56
Location: Kempton Park, Gauteng, South Africa

Return to Educational Articles

Who is online

Users browsing this forum: No registered users and 1 guest