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Understanding the use of firearms in self-defence

Self defence

Table of Contents


Owning a firearm is the right of many citizens of South Africa and has benefits, like being able to defend oneself. It does come with responsibilities though, legal possession, safe keeping of the firearm and ammunition and knowledge of when to shoot and when to refrain from shooting.

South Africa’s current firearms regulatory framework consists of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (FCA) and subsidiary legislation and to legally own a gun in South Africa, a person first needs to hold a licence to possess that firearm.

Owning a firearm comes with a number of benefits, including self-defence and participating in sport shooting or hunting capabilities. Having a firearm nearby in a situation where crime occurs, can save the owner and his family’s lives. A firearm allows you to exercise your constitutional rights and there is no reason to compromise one’s freedom or personal security. It is unnecessary to suffer in any situation at home or at your business, if you could be properly prepared for a such a situation, and able to defend yourself.

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Owning a gun and learning to use it effectively while maintaining gun responsibility, can also be rewarding and conducive to self-discipline.

In South Africa, possession of a firearm is conditional on a competency test and several other factors, including background checking of the applicant, inspection of an owner’s premises, and licensing of the weapon by the police.

Persons over the age of 21 years who wish to own firearms are required to obtain a licence for each firearm and may possess a maximum number of four firearms, and a maximum of 200 rounds of ammunition per license.

The right to possess firearms is however not guaranteed in South Africa, a person must be “fit and proper” to own a firearm, be stable and does not have a proclivity for violence or any substance-abuse problem.

Legalities of owning a firearm for self-defence

Although owning a firearm is the right of most citizens of South Africa and has its benefits, like being able to defend oneself and participate in sport shooting or hunting, it also comes with several responsibilities – legally and regarding the safekeeping of the firearm and ammunition.

To legally obtain a gun in South Africa, a person first needs to obtain a licence to possess that firearm – whether for self-defence, hunting or sports shooting.

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A separate license must be issued for every firearm and applicants must obtain a competency certificate first.

The FCA requires that an application to possess a firearm, trade in firearms, manufacture firearms, or be licensed as a gunsmith be submitted accompanied by a Competency Certificate.

To obtain a Competency Certificate, the candidate must:

  • Be a citizen or permanent resident of South Africa
  • Be at least twenty-one years old
  • Be a “fit and proper person” for the specific license
  • Be stable and does not have a tendency for violence
  • Not have a substance-abuse problem
  • Have no conviction within the five years preceding the application for crimes related to violence, dishonesty, recklessness or instability
  • Not “become or been declared unfit to possess a firearm” within the five years preceding the application
  • Have completed the required tests on understanding the FCA, the training and test for the safe and effective use of a firearm, and all applicable training and tests for the specific license.

The person must further be –

  • In stable mental condition and does not have a propensity for violence
  • Does not suffer from a substance-abuse problem
  • Has not been denied a license, permit, or authorization for a firearm
  • Has not been served with a protection order or accused of domestic violence
  • Has not been diagnosed or treated for depression, substance abuse, or behavioural or emotional problems
  • Has not attempted suicide, suffered major depression or emotional problems, or had a substance-abuse problem
  • Has not been reported to the police or social services for threatening or attempting violence or other conflict anywhere
  • That in the two years preceding the application the applicant did not go through a divorce or separation from a partner in which violence was alleged or
  • Was fired or laid off from his or her job.

After an applicant has completed the competence training and received the training certificate from an accredited training provider, he must apply for a Competency Certificate at the SAPS.

What is the Firearms Control Act?

He must submit the application and supporting documentation to the local designated firearms officer (DFO) an only when a person has obtained the competency certificate, he or she can complete a SAPS Application for a Licence to Possess a Firearm and submit it to the local DFO.

A person may only possess one firearm for the purpose of self-defence and the licence will be valid for five years from the date of issue. Normally, a person may possess four firearms for the purpose of occasional hunting or sports shooting but if a person is in possession of a firearm licence for self-defence, he or she may only apply for three firearm licences for this purpose since total ownership may not exceed four firearms.

Once your application is deemed successful, you first have to install a firearm safe according to SABS standards and it must be done within 14 days. An inspection of your premises will ascertain whether you have met the requirements before you may take the firearm in possession.

Safety requirements for holders of firearm licences

FCA Regulations enforce strict safety requirements for holders of firearm licenses. A storage place will be specified in every license, and the owner must store the firearm at that specified place.

When license holders do not carry their firearm on their person, the firearm and its ammunition must be stored in a safe or a strong room that meets all requirements by the South African Bureau of Standards (SABS).

Failure to lock a firearm in a safe, strong room or device as required by law is an offense and punishable.

A person may store a firearm licensed to another person if he or she is licensed to possess a firearm and has written permission from the person to whom the firearm is licensed. This must be endorsed by a relevant Designated Firearms Officer, and the firearm must be stored in a safe at the place stipulated in the written permission.

Are you allowed to shoot an attacker

South African law clearly indicates that a licenced firearm may only be used for a lawful purpose, thus a person owning a firearm for self-defence can only use the weapon to defend his or her life against an unlawful attack.

Owning a firearm for self-defence puts a huge responsibility on gun owners who want to be adequately prepared to defend themselves or their loved ones during an attack.

Pointing a firearm at anyone or discharging it in public can lead to criminal charges and the person can lose his or her licence. It is thus important to know exactly when self-defence can be claimed.

What is the difference between a gun and a firearm?

When a person’s life is threatened, he or she is lawfully allowed to use the necessary force to defend themselves – even if the attacker is being injured or killed. The important criteria is whether the force is excessive or proportionate to the attack, in which case you are guilty of assault.

You can’t shoot an intruder if you just discover him in your house, and you will get in serious trouble if the person turns out to be unarmed. You may however defend yourself with a gun if the invaders were armed and threatening to kill or seriously harm you or your family.

The risk created by an intruder, the likelihood that such risk will actually cause harm to others, the alternatives of lesser risk, and the costs of those, will be taken into consideration when deciding whether shooting an intruder was legal self-defence.

If you first manage to subdue someone during a home invasion, you can’t shoot them afterwards, and if they succeed to flee out of the house, you also cannot open fire.

As a gun owner you must always act within the outline of the law and only open fire if your life or that of your family is at risk.

A person using a firearm for self-defence must be aware that when home invasions result in a criminal being shot dead, police would often open a murder docket and investigate a case. It is therefore crucially important for gun owners to stay and act within the law and be able to easily proof that they acted correctly and legally. The main purpose of self-defence during home invasions is for everyone to get out alive, so if someone was only stealing goods, it isn’t worth taking the risk to take a life and jeopardise serving jailtime afterwards.

Circumstances in which a person can claim self-defence  

A person whose life is threatened may lawfully use all the necessary force to defend himself, even if it means an attacker is injured or killed in the process. Owning a firearm for self-defence is however a huge responsibility and firearm owners must make sure that they are adequately informed or prepared to defend themselves or their loved ones during a possible attack. 

It is important to remember that the force may not be excessive and must be proportionate to the attack. When it comes to violent crimes in South Africa, criminals are usually armed however, and won’t hesitate to use force. Even if you are for example attacked by a violent, but unarmed group of attackers, shooting in self-defence may possibly be justified, but you will have to provide proof of it.

Is pointing a gun at someone illegal in South Africa?

When an intruder is discovered in your home and you take out your firearm and the threat is diffused, it doesn’t justify shooting him. You may not shoot if your life was not in imminent danger further.

A person who fails to lock his or her firearm away in a safe, strong-room or approved device for the safe-keeping of the gun and loses it by theft he may also be guilty of an offence and can face a prison sentence. If a firearm gets stolen or lost, it must be reported to the nearest police station within 24 hours.


Once a person has purchased a new firearm and taken the required safety classes, he or she should consider some extra or advanced training courses to make him of her even more confident in using a firearm correctly and in suitable circumstances.

Spending time at a shooting range and improving on marksmanship skills can be a fun, relaxing and satisfying experience, good for both physical or mental well-being.

A person’s personal responsibility can also be enhanced by honing the responsibilities of owning a firearm. Owning any kind of gun is an opportunity to be more accountable than previously.

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You always need to be sure that your weapon is stored safely and is securely locked up. Make sure that nobody may have access to it, that you safely transport it when necessary, that your ammunition rounds are also stored safely and that your license is properly maintained and still valid.

A committed and responsible gun owner takes time to learn as much as possible about using a firearm. Gun owners usually take pride in owning a firearm and do not take this responsibility lightly. Owning and learning to effectively shoot your gun could save your life and the lives of your family or neighbours on occasion.


Who is allowed to own a firearm in South Africa legally?

Any citizen or permanent resident 21 years old or older, with no criminal record or disqualifying mental illness, is allowed to own a firearm.


Which law regulates the possession and use of firearms in South Africa

South Africa’s firearm use is regulated by the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (FCA) as well as subsidiary legislation, called the Firearms Control Regulations (FCA Regulations).


May you use a firearm to defend yourself

Yes, you may, but your way of defence by means of a firearm must be proportionate to the attack.


How can you legally own a firearm in South Africa? 

Possession of a firearm is only possible after obtaining a licence for that firearm. You have to go through a licence application process which consists of a competency test, background checking of the applicant, inspection of an owner’s premises, and finally the licensing of the firearm by the police.

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