In a society marred by the levels of violence that South Africa has – combined with the abject hypocrisy of a political leadership seeking civilian disarmament while surrounding itself with dedicated taxpayer-funded protection – such a focus is entirely predictable.
But the Bill seeks so much more, which is not receiving the attention it deserves. The wording is simple and direct: ‘Sections 17 and 18 of the principal Act are hereby repealed.’
With this sentence, firearm collecting would be eliminated. This seems to follow the views expressed by police minister Bheki Cele, a vocal opponent of firearm ownership who is nonetheless never seen without a posse of firearm-laden guards, when he declared early last year: ‘One funny thing about the present Firearms Act is that it allows individuals in South Africa to have an unlimited number of firearms, and definitely the incoming act can’t allow that.’
There are many for whom this is a necessary step towards a gun-free Nirvana. Some no doubt see those who would want to own a number of guns as surely a vicious, reprobate species, emblematic of society’s woes – why, after all, would one want to own a ‘bad thing’?
There are others, gun owners themselves, for whom this is someone else’s problem. If state encroachment must hit someone, let it be a small, elite group rather than hundreds of thousands of those for whom a firearm is a means of protection.
All of this is incorrect.
Part of the human experience
Firearms are a part of the human experience. They have served as tools of warfare, policing, scientific investigation, sport and the provision of food, as well as in many instances being objects of Engineering Art. The French Metropolitan Museum of Art has this to say:
‘Arms and armour have been a vital part of virtually all cultures for thousands of years, pivotal not only in conquest and defence, but also in court pageantry and ceremonial events. Throughout time the best armour and weapons have represented the highest artistic and technical capabilities of the society and period in which they were made, forming a unique aspect of both art history and material culture.’
It adds that part of its mandate is to ‘collect, preserve, research, publish, and exhibit distinguished examples representing the art of the armourer, swordsmith, and gunmaker’.
Firearms are, in South African parlance, a part of our heritage. This is a matter of legislation and regulation. Regulations issued in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act specifically recognise firearms as ‘heritage objects’, alongside particular archaeological finds, manuscripts, musical instruments, tools and machinery and objets d’art. Such items are to be protected from damage or destruction.
Perhaps it is worth recapping what firearm-collecting entails. It is not a licence to arbitrarily amass an ever-growing volume of weapons according to fancy. Rather, it is a cerebral and intellectual pursuit by people from all walks of life, from doctors and lawyers to engineers, workshop managers, and academics, to name but a few, with the shared passion for researching and conserving our history in this particular area.
A gun collection is invariably matched by an enormous library, and collectors typically spend as much time in books and archives and corresponding with other experts as they do in demonstrating, evaluating and servicing their weapons. Several South African collectors are recognised experts on their subjects and are consulted by historians in South Africa and abroad.
South Africa’s legislation on this is very clear: to be a collector one must first be accepted by a recognised collectors’ association. The Firearms Control Act specifies that the purpose of this is conserving items with ‘historical, heritage, technological, scientific, educational, cultural, commemorative, investment, rarity, thematic or artistic value’.
Applicants are required to specify the purpose of their collection, and to demonstrate their knowledge of and interest in what they intend to collect. Collections must be built around fields of interest and themes of genuine scholarly interest. Firearms of the 2nd Anglo-Boer War might be a field of interest, with British cavalry carbines, officers’ sidearms, or German-manufactured weapons being distinct themes, each of which would require approval.
To acquire firearms, collectors must show proper storage facilities. These typically match or exceed the facilities employed by dealers; indeed, particular types of weapons must be stored so that they cannot be loaded and fired. (This usually takes the form of putting a lock on the gun so that it cannot be loaded, or removing and locking away the firing mechanism separately from the main body of the weapon.)
Collector status allows an individual to own more firearms, both overall and within the various categories of firearms established in legislation, than is allowed to general applicants. But here again, it is a cautious, structured, progressive process.
Collectors may progress through a series of levels (technically from Category D through to A). Entry level collectors are limited to six firearms; in time, they may graduate to being allowed to expand the number of weapons held based on a track record of genuine interest, knowledge and responsibility.
If the collector’s interest includes semi-automatic (restricted) firearms, then the collector can apply for the requisite classification to include these in his or her collection if a solid foundation for this has been laid. In a few cases the collector can apply for a further classification to add fully automatic (prohibited) firearms to the collection, but the approval for this is very strict, and constitutes only about 2% of the total ownership – but this category is important if we recall that fully automatic firearms appeared around the time of the Anglo Boer War and played a vital part in firearms history.
Takes several years
Each level requires justification and takes several years. Every firearm that is to be added to the collection has to be the subject of a study; this must be approved by the accredited collectors’ body and then be licensed by the state. The applications are something to behold, and demonstrate a greater depth of scholarship than many official policy documents.
Minister Cele is in a sense correct that there is no nominal limit on the numbers of firearms that may be held – but this is in the nature of collecting, whether guns, cars, stamps or stuffed toys.
A numerical ‘limit’ for a serious collector is an arbitrary limit and makes no sense. Some of our better-known historical firearms run to a few hundred variations to choose from, but in reality this is effectively controlled by the current requirements in legislation for the individual collector concerned being able to demonstrate the knowledge of each and every firearm, together with the requirements for safe storage, and the financial resources to acquire and maintain them.
Besides, the collecting community in South Africa is comparatively small, at a little over 2 000 people. (Those able to collect prohibited arms probably amount to no more than 50 across the country). And, in reality, the largest collection is estimated at something around 500 pieces, but with the bulk of these being more than 100 years old. (It’s impossible to say for sure, but some estimates put the total value of all firearm collections in South Africa in the region of a billion rand.) By international standards this is modest.
In fact, for the sake of South Africa’s heritage, one might wish that more collectors existed and that larger collections were held. In international terms, this is uncontroversial. Private gun-collecting is a recognised part of most democratic societies’ heritage preservation strategies, as the bulk of historical and heritage firearms (80%) are held in private collections, not museums, as is the case worldwide. This is the case even in Australia, which is frequently cited as a successful role model for comprehensive gun control.
But would this banning make the country safer?
Exemplary level of conscientiousness
There is no evidence for this. Precisely because gun collectors are passionate about the subjects they study – guns are typically artefacts through which another field such as history or technology is explored – and because they are subject to a heightened level of scrutiny, they generally demonstrate an exemplary level of conscientiousness. Criminals seeking an automatic or semi-automatic firearm can and do source them from any of the myriad illegal networks within the country, where they might originate abroad or from police or military stocks – but targeting a gun collector would be more arduous than it would be worth.
Indeed, gun collectors are probably the least ‘problematic’ part of the firearm-owning population. After the Paris attacks in 2015, the European Union reassessed its own firearm legislative setup. It specifically recognised the role of collecting, in terms not dissimilar from South Africa’s current legislation. It’s worth quoting briefly:
‘Member States should be able to choose to grant authorisations to recognised museums and collectors for the acquisition and possession of firearms, essential components and ammunition classified in category A [automatic firearms, explosives etc] and others when necessary for historical, cultural, scientific, technical, educational or heritage purposes, provided that such museums and collectors demonstrate, prior to being granted such an authorisation, that they have taken the necessary measures to address any risks to public security or public order, including by way of proper storage. Any such authorisation should take into account and reflect the specific situation, including the nature of the collection and its purposes, and Member States should ensure that a system is in place for monitoring collectors and collections.’
The response might be to concede the value of preservation but insist that collectors permanently deactivate their guns. This is to misunderstand the nature of collecting and preservation. Museums, no less than private collectors, have to maintain firearms in working order. A deactivated firearm is not a firearm anymore, in fact or in law. It is an ornament at best, and its value as a piece of heritage is degraded to near uselessness.
Keeping guns operational
There are good reasons for keeping guns operational. They connect us with a past, with other cultures and with experiences that are often different from those of our everyday. They help us to understand the myths and realities of a distant battlefield, or hunting ground. They elucidate the engineering and manufacturing processes that may have existed at a given time. They give us insight into the historical, technological and psychological factors that motivated firearm users and the doctrines that guided military thinking. Just how accurate was a Brown Bess musket on a Napoleonic battlefield? Did the Martini-Henry really overheat so as to make cartridge extraction difficult? What made the Soviet PPsh-41 such a popular weapon in the Second World War, even among enemy troops, and how would it compare with the German MP40 or Italian MAB 38?
In some cases, they illustrate the challenges and experiences of life in the past – as with the 19th Century ‘Cape gun’, a doubled-barrelled piece (one barrel rifled for accurate distance shooting, one smoothbore for shotgun shells) that answered farmers’ and hunters’ needs in the unpredictable bush and forest of the Eastern Cape.
Gun collections are in this way an intrinsic part of the study of history itself.
To deactivate these artefacts is akin to splashing smiley faces on a Pierneef or underlining a Gutenberg Bible with a black marker.
In the event, the fate of many of these weapons – Snider carbines from the Basotho Gun War (interestingly enough, sparked by the determination of the colonial government to seize the Basothos’ weapons under the 1878 Peace Preservation Act), Mausers from Spion Kop and Magersfontein, Lee Enfields from El Alamein – is likely to be exportation to collectors abroad, or to be turfed into a smelter, possibly to feed industrial policy’s current fixation with scrap metal. Many, particularly those more lethal ‘prohibited’ pieces, will find their way back onto our streets.
To prohibit gun collecting is to destroy an important part of South Africa’s heritage.
Interestingly, the Daily Maverick recently ran a piece about the rowdy debate around the proposed amendment. Its first words were that ‘extremist pro-gun lobbyists’ were raging against Gun-Free South Africa. It certainly put forward some examples of despicable behaviour. This has no place in civil discourse.
But equally, it must be recognised that an ‘extremist anti-gun lobby’ exists, whose paranoia about and visceral aversion to guns is pushing an agenda that must be recognised for the cultural vandalism that it is.
Join the IRR’s lobby against the Firearms Control Amendment Bill here.
1st published in the Daily Friend.