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Is pointing a gun at someone illegal in South Africa?

Introduction

Owners of firearms may wonder whether it is legal or illegal to point a gun at someone in South Africa.

Apart from regulating who may own and possess firearms in South Africa, the Firearms Control Act of 2000 (FCA) and its subsidiary legislation, the Firearms Control Regulations (FCA Regulations), also makes it a criminal offence to contravene any provision of the Act, or any notice issued under the Act.

Several possible offences are described under the act, as well as convictions that may be imposed on perpetrators.

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The National Commissioner of the South African Police Service (SAPS) is the designated regulatory authority and also functions as the National Commissioner of the Registrar of Firearms (the Registrar).

Stringent practical and procedural limits were put in place regarding obtaining firearms, and requirements for obtaining a license for allowed firearms. Different rules apply to diverse situations, for instance, a firearm for self-defence may be issued only if the applicant can demonstrate the need for a weapon and an inability to achieve protection through other means.

However, even if a person can meet these standards, and was issued his license for the relevant term, the licensee must continue to show compliance with all applicable requirements.

 

The Laws that are Controlling the Use, Handling, Ownership and Trading in Firearms

An assumption of the Firearms Control Act of 2000 is that the increased availability and abuse of firearms and ammunition has contributed significantly to the high levels of violent crime in the country, but recognising at the same time that every person has the right to life and the right to his own security, the Act is designed to establish a comprehensive system of firearms control.

Over and above specific offences, the Act makes it a criminal offence to contravene any provision of the Act, or any notice issued under the Act, therefore any gun owner has to know his or her stuff when owning, using, handling or trading in firearms.

 

General prohibitions regarding the possession of firearms

Firstly, it is a crime to have a firearm in your possession unless you hold a current licence, permit or authorisation for that specific firearm.

Even if you know about the existence of any firearm or ammunition in the unlawful possession of someone else, you must report this to a police official without delay since you are committing an offence if you don’t.

Certain firearms may not be possessed (or licensed) at all in South Africa. These include fully automatic firearms, any gun, cannon, mortar, or launcher to fire a rocket, grenade, bomb, etc. (i.e. a ‘launcher’) or any imitation thereof, any frame, body or barrel of such a fully automatic firearm or launcher, any projectile to be discharged from a launcher, or any imitation thereof; and any other firearm gazetted by the Minister of Police.

Guide: Top Tips for Firearm Safety

It is also a criminal offence to possess a firearm where the mechanism has been altered to enable multiple shots from a single trigger, the calibre has been altered without the written permission of the National Commissioner of Police, the barrel length has been (purposely) altered without such written permission, or the serial number or any other identifying mark has been changed or removed without such written permission.

When a person is declared unfit by the Registrar or the court, or becomes unfit to possess a firearm, he must surrender all permits, licences, certificates and ammunition in his possession to the nearest police station within 24 hours. It would be a criminal offence not to do so.

A police official or any person authorised by the Registrar, who has reasonable grounds to believe that a person has, or recently had a firearm or ammunition in his possession, may request that person to produce his licence, permit or authorisation for the possession of the firearm, answer questions relating to the whereabouts of the firearm and furnish any other information reasonably required by the police official or authorised person. It would be an offence not to comply with such requests.

Guide: Five Rules for Firearm Safety

Any person in possession of a firearm of which the serial number or mark has been erased, or tampered with, or has simply become illegible, must notify the Registrar about the situation. Not doing so would imply committing a crime.

Any person that is aware of the existence of firearms or ammunition that is kept illegally and fails to report it without delay, is guilty of an offence and may be imprisoned for a period of up to 15 years.

Giving control of a firearm to a person whom he or she knows to be mentally ill or is under the influence of a substance which has a narcotic effect may face a three year maximum prison sentence, if found guilty.

The most basic safety rule when handling firearms is to always keep the muzzle of the firearm pointed in a safe direction.

To never point your gun at anything you do not intend to shoot, is particularly important when loading or unloading a firearm. In the event of any accidental discharge, no injury can occur as long as the muzzle of the firearm is pointing in a safe direction.

Guide: Five Tips to Shoot more Accurately

Such a safe direction means a direction in which a bullet cannot possibly strike anyone, considering possible ricochets and the fact that bullets can penetrate walls and ceilings. A safe direction may be upwards on in some cases or downwards, but never at anyone or anything not intended as a target. Even when dry firing with a gun that is not loaded, no person should ever point the gun at an unsafe target.

When you often has to handle a firearm, it is wise to make it a habit to know exactly where the muzzle of your gun is pointing at all times, and be sure that you remain in control of the direction in which the muzzle is pointing, even if you may fall or stumble.

Firearms should only be loaded when you are ready to shoot in the field or on the target range or shooting area. Whenever they are not in use, firearms and ammunition should be secured in a safe place, always separate from each other. It is a gun owner’s responsibility to prevent children and unauthorised adults from gaining access to any firearms or ammunition.

You should unload your gun as soon as you have finished using it. There is no place for a loaded gun in or near a car, vehicle or building. Whether you went hunting or practised at a target range, it is important to unload your gun immediately when you have finished shooting, well before you take it back to your car, camp or home.

Whenever you handle a firearm or need to hand it to someone else, always open the action first and visually check the chamber, receiver and magazine to be certain none of it does contain any ammunition. Always keep actions open when a firearm is not in use and never assume that a gun is unloaded. It is considered the mark of an experienced and responsible gun handler to check for and adhere to these rules yourself!

Guideline: Understanding Gunshot Residue and Propellant

Nobody should ever cross a fence, climb a tree or perform any awkward action while holding a loaded gun. Even while in the field, there will be times when the basic rules of firearms safety added to common sense will require you to unload your gun for maximum safety.

Nobody should ever pull or push a loaded firearm toward yourself or another person. There is no excuse for ever carrying a loaded gun in a case or a holster not being worn. The golden rule in such a case is: When in doubt, unload the gun!

Every firearm should at all times be handled as though it could fire at any time. The safety catch, which is a mechanism used to help prevent the accidental discharge of a firearm, can, like any such device, become inoperable at the worst possible time. On top of that, the safety catch may be “off” by mistake, when you think it is “on.”

The safety catch just serves as a supplement to proper gun handling but cannot possibly serve as a substitute for common sense and responsibility. Nobody should ever handle a gun carelessly and assume that the gun won’t fire just because the safety catch is on.

Nobody should ever touch the trigger on a firearm until the person actually intends to shoot. Always keep your fingers away from the trigger while loading or unloading a firearm and never pull the trigger on any firearm with the safety catch on the “safe” position or anywhere in between “safe” and “fire.” It remains possible that the firearm can still fire at any time, or even later when you release the safety, without ever having touched the trigger again. Make sure that you never place the safety catch in between positions, since half-safe is as good as unsafe. Keep the safety catch “on” until you are absolutely ready to fire.

Anyone handling a firearm should also remember that, regardless of the position of the safety, any blow or jar strong enough to actuate the firing mechanism of a gun can cause it to fire – which can happen even if the trigger is not touched at all, as can happen when a gun is dropped.

A loaded gun should never be rested against any object because there is always a possibility that it will be jarred or slide from its position and fall with enough force to discharge. There is only one way you can be absolutely certain that a gun cannot fire, and that is when the action is open, and it is completely empty.

 

Specific offences when handling a firearm

But even if you are legally licenced to own a firearm and are aware of all the above safety precautions, there still are certain some prohibitions regarding its use, of which pointing a gun at someone may be one.

A few specific offences in handling a firearm include the following:

  • It is an offence to cause bodily injury to any person, or cause damage to property by negligently using a firearm or an airgun.
  • It is an offence to discharge or handle a firearm or an airgun in a manner likely to injure or endanger the safety or property of any person or with reckless disregard for the safety or property of other people.
  • You will commit a crime if you have control of a loaded firearm or an airgun in circumstances where it creates a risk to the safety or property of any person, and you do not take reasonable precautions to avoid the relevant danger.
  • It is an offence to handle a firearm or an airgun while under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or narcotic effect on you.
  • You commit a criminal offence if you give control of a firearm or an airgun to a person whom you know (or reasonably ought to know) to be mentally ill, or to be under the influence of a substance which has an intoxicating or a narcotic effect on that person.
  • It is an offence to point any firearm or airgun at any other person without good reason, whether it is loaded or not, and whether it is capable of being discharged or not.
  • You are even committing a crime if, without good reason to do so, you point anything at any person which is likely to lead that person to believe that it is a firearm.
  • It is an offence to discharge a firearm or airgun in a built-up area, or in any public place, without good reason to do so.

Legal position of pointing a firearm at someone

The offence of pointing a firearm is currently provided for in terms of section 120(6) of the Firearms Control Act 60 of 2000 which renders it an offence to point any firearm, antique firearm or airgun; whether or not it is loaded or capable of being discharged; or anything which is likely to lead a person to believe that it is a firearm, antique firearm or airgun, at any person, without good reason to do so.

The relevant South African laws clearly states that a licenced firearm can only be used for a lawful purpose and where it is safe to use. If you own a firearm for self-defence, you can only use the weapon to defend your life against an unlawful attack. To point a firearm at someone or discharging in public can lead to criminal charges and the perpetrator can lose his or her licence.

A 10 year prison sentence may be imposed for contravening this provision and point a weapon at any person, without good reason to do so.

 

Circumstances in which you can claim self-defence

A person whose life is threatened is lawfully entitled to use the necessary force to defend himself, even if it means the attacker is injured or killed. Owning a firearm for self-defence is a huge responsibility however and firearm owners are often not adequately informed or prepared to defend themselves or their loved ones during an attack.

It is important to remember that the force may not be excessive and must be proportionate to the attack. If, for example, someone hits you, you could prevent the attack by grabbing his hand. If the person stops and you continue hitting him, you become the attacker and will be guilty of assault.

When it comes to violent crimes in South Africa, criminals are usually armed and won’t hesitate to use force. In considering whether a type of defence is proportionate to the attack, doesn’t necessarily imply that the same weapon or exact type of force must be used. You would not be permitted to shoot in self-defence for being hit in the face by another person, but, if you are attacked by a violent, but unarmed group of attackers, shooting in self-defence may possibly be justified.

Only having an intruder present in your home doesn’t justify shooting him. If you take out your firearm and the threat is diffused, you may not shoot. The question remains whether your life was in imminent danger.

A person who fails to lock away his or her firearm in a safe, strong-room or device for the safe-keeping of the gun and loses it by theft or otherwise may be found guilty of an offence and can face a five year prison sentence.

If a firearm gets stolen or lost, it must be reported to the nearest police station within 24 hours. Failure to do so, may secure you a 10 year prison sentence.

 

FAQs

What laws regulate the possession of firearms in South Africa

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

 

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

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

 

May you point a firearm at someone in South Africa

No, it is an offence to point any firearm or airgun at any other person without good reason, whether it is loaded or not, and whether it is capable of being discharged or not.

 

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.

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