Western Cape gun problem: effective central firearms database & dedicated resources needed

By Dan Plato, Western Cape Minister of Community Safety:

This is a statement made by Minister Dan Plato during a briefing on the Effect of Firearm Legislation on Crime in the Western Cape. The full document can be accessed here.

The Western Cape has a gun problem which needs to be addressed if we are to decrease the murder rate in the province, reduce violent crime and disarm the criminals, gangsters and druglords who hold our communities hostage.

The research released today was compiled by my Department as part of a national study requested by the Civilian Secretariat of Police wherein each province is required to conduct research on the implementation of the Firearms Control Act (FCA) and to review police dockets of gun-created crimes between 1999 and 2014.

The study aimed to:

  • Examine existing data on firearm related crime in South Africa and the Western Cape;
  • Examine the implementation of the FCA; and
  • Identify problems encountered by the South African Police Service (SAPS) in enforcing the FCA in the Western Cape.

Each province, as instructed by the Civilian Secretariat for Police, was to examine firearm related dockets for the period 1999 to 2014 in four police stations, two of which must be urban, one in a rural area, and one in a peri-urban area. Four police stations in the Province were selected in the study: Mitchell’s Plain and Nyanga were selected as urban police stations, Paarl East as the peri-urban station, and Worcester as the rural station. These stations also had a high prevalence of firearm related crimes.

The FCA intended to address firearm-related crime through reducing the proliferation of illegally possessed firearms, removing them from society and improving control over those firearms which are in legal possession.

National Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko rightfully exclaimed in his Budget Speech this year that “There are far too many guns circulating in our society” which has spurred him to amend the Firearms Control Act as a way of curbing the prevalence of gun culture and high levels of violence in our society. My Department has already provided extensive comments on the Draft Firearms Control Bill, which is in line with the findings of this research report.

It has to be stressed that the Western Cape Government recognises the legal ownership of firearms by citizens but that gun control is about the bigger problem of availability of both legal and illegal firearms to commit the heinous crimes.

Between 1999 and 2014, 204 115 firearms were reported lost or stolen – averaging 35 firearms per day. Though it is reported that almost 91% of these firearms (185 640) have been recovered by the SAPS, the reported and recovered firearms still does not represent the illegal firearms already in circulation.

 

The Firearms Control Act (FCA)

Under the FCA, a person must apply for a competency certificate to possess a firearm, to trade, manufacture in firearms or to conduct a business as a gunsmith.

The FCA requires the National Police Commissioner of the Police (or Registrar) to designate police officials as Designated Firearms Officers (DFOs). The DFO is responsible for various firearm related competencies as listed in the act. He/she is also required to evaluate and capture applications on the information system, and ensure firearm data integrity.

The Registrar must also establish a Central Firearm Registry (CFR), which is now housed under SAPS Visible Policing: the Firearm, Liquor and Second Hand Goods Control Division (also known as the FLASH Division).

The Registrar is responsible for establishing and maintaining a Central Firearms Register, and to monitor the implementation of the Act.  Concerns have been raised regarding the CFR computer system which is perceived not to be running adequately.

Various stakeholders have raised concerns regarding the CFR, which have included allegations of police corruption at senior levels and convictions of SAPS FLASH officials.

This led SAPS to establish a commission of inquiry into the CFR in 2013, and a number of criminal investigations were initiated against SAPS officials for the corrupt fast tracking and issuing of licenses.

In 2015, charges were brought against several members, including senior members of SAPS who allegedly fraudulently issued firearm licenses to gangsters and drug dealers in the Western Cape.  It was discovered that firearms and ammunition from a FLASH unit in Gauteng, some of which were supposed to have been destroyed by the police, found their way into the hands of Western Cape gangsters.  However, the findings and recommendations of the commission of inquiry have not been made public.

 

Findings on implementation of the Firearms Control Act

Effective resourcing

The four police stations in the study each had a DFO. All except one of the DFOs had been in their positions for some years. These longer-serving DFOs had undergone training on the Act, as well as on the process of conducting an assessment for competency certificates, and for applications and renewal of firearm licenses.

When the FCA was implemented in the Western Cape, only 45 of the 150 police stations were given work stations to capture firearm applications and no additional human resources had been allocated to the function since 2004.

It is understandable, but not acceptable, that the DFOs reported that they experienced some problems in executing their functions.

There is a credible lack of material resources in the form of computers, scanners and systems in order for the DFO to capture the required information. In the Western Cape, not all police stations have access to an electronic system used to capture the firearm related data and are forced to use a paper-based system.

 

They reported that their responsibilities, as well as the additional expectations as part of the FLASH were so onerous that it was difficult to cover the required jurisdictions and comply with the provisions of the Act. None of the identified stations had more than three SAPS members allocated for both firearm licencing and liquor control. DFOs therefor cannot always conduct their duties optimally to determine whether the applicant is fit to own a firearm, including checking the domestic violence register to see that no final protection order has been issued against the applicant.

 

Firearm related crimes in the Western Cape

Firearm related crime statistics in the Western Cape are not always an accurate reflection of actual crimes committed. Murder statistics are generally considered as the most reliable crime statistic, though even these may not be 100% accurate.

The statistics still show a grim outlook which is cause for concern and needs to be addressed.

  • Between 1999/2000 and 2013/2014, attempted murder contributed 20.5% of all reported crime where a firearm was used.
  • The percentage of murders committed using a firearm has increased from 22.8% in 2004/2005 to 35.5% in 2013/2014 showing a concerning increase in the use of firearms in the Western Cape.
  • The percentage of cases involving firearms was lowest in the period 2006/2007 to 2009/2010.
  • In the last ten years (2004/5 and 2013/14) a firearm was used in seven out of every ten attempted murder cases reported per year.

 

Findings from the station case dockets

Through the analysis of the 300 cases dockets for the period 1999 to 2014 where firearms were used to commit crime – 75 from each of the four police stations – we found:

  • On average, most of the firearm related crimes were committed in January;
  • The least firearm related crimes were committed on Mondays and Thursdays, and the highest on Sundays and Fridays;
  • The highest incidence of these crimes was between the hours 18h00 and 24h00;
  • The fewest of these crimes were committed between 01h00 and 06h00;
  • The overwhelming majority of perpetrators were male (97%);
  • The majority of perpetrators (68.6%) were male between the ages 18 to 35 years.
  • Overall, 20% of these cases, or one in five resulted in conviction; this is not good enough.
  • The highest level of conviction was at Paarl East, where 46.67% of cases resulted in conviction;
  • The lowest rate of conviction was at Mitchells Plain, with 5.33% of cases resulting in conviction;
  • In the majority of cases (37.33%) charges had been withdrawn against the accused; and
  • A large percentage of cases (34.67%) were undetected – or the police had failed to resolve the crime.

When looking at the number of days taken to convict a perpetrator of a firearm related crime, we found:

  • Average time taken – 474 days;
  • Nyanga on average takes 1257 days – just under three and a half years;
  • Worcester on average took 593 days – 20 months;
  • Paarl East took just under a year, 354 days; and
  • Mitchell’s Plain took just less than five months, 145 days, to finalise cases. However, there are so few convictions at Mitchells Plain that this statistic is misleading.

Conclusion

From 2010/2011, the national and provincial statistics for crime showed an increase in serious crime that has persisted through to 2013/2014. The use of firearms in the commission of murder and attempted murder also showed a significant increase in this period. The simultaneous increase in the number of firearms issued together with the increase in serious crimes committed with a firearm also suggests a link between the extent of firearm related crime and the number of firearms in circulation.

Since 2010, serious flaws in the administration of the Central Firearms Registry became apparent, as well as corruption and fraudulent activity among SAPS members responsible for the implementation of the Act, and for control of illegal guns confiscated by the police. That many of those guns have reportedly found their way to the Western Cape, is likely to have contributed to the escalation of gun-related violence in gang-dominated areas on the Cape Flats.

Deputy Police Minister Maggie Sotyu said at the National Firearms Summit in March this year: “I am very sad to say today that, with the billions that the SAPS gets every year from Government since 1994, we are still plagued with the same problem of a Central Firearms Registry (CFR) that is dysfunctional and in constant decay.”

She further identifies problems of outdated IT systems, high vacancy rate, corruption and definite lack of command and control over the CFR. It is time for the SAPS to prioritise the fixing of this system. Without it, we will never win the war against illegal firearms.

 

Recommendations

The FCA is an innovative and comprehensive piece of legislation, which, if implemented effectively, could make a considerable contribution towards reducing the proliferation of gun related crime in the country, as well as in the Western Cape.

 

The Department of Community Safety in the Western Cape proposes that:

  • The Designated Firearm Officers’ office must be adequately resourced with human resources, suitable vehicles, computers and budget in accordance the gravity of the crimes they deal with, and the scope of their work.
  • The DFO staff members and assistants must undergo continuous training on the interpretation and implementation of the FCA.
  • There is a need to focus on the control of firearms and ammunition through a functioning and effective national electronic database monitored by the SAPS at the Provincial Level. Though this process is already underway, there is an urgent need to speed up the establishment and national implementation of the central electronic database.
  • It is recommended that an integrated system must be established to link the dealers and the CFR office to enable the SAPS to trace the source of the ammunition used to commit crime in the province.
  • An integrated and inter-sectoral response to fully understand the factors contributing to the increase in these crimes are undertaken, and for measures to address them.
  • Further research is conducted to monitor the trends in firearm related crimes, murders and other serious crimes, and to assess whether the extent of these crimes is related to the number of firearms issued and in circulation in the country and the Province. The Department undertakes to repeat a similar study in future to monitor progress made.
  • The FLASH unit should be elevated to a stand-alone unit in each police station reporting directly to the Station Commander with its established niche focusing primarily on firearm application processes, monitoring, inspections and compliance, and the functions associated with Second Hand Goods and Liquor Control.
  • It is recommended that the systems of the Department of Home Affairs and the South African Police Service must be integrated to expedite information sharing to address the issue of firearm control and ownership.
  • The FCA must be amended to ensure that the gunsmiths in South Africa manufacture guns with micro-dots and ballistics traces so that the gun can be traceable if used for either legal or illegal activities in the country. These amendments have been proposed in the Draft Bill of 2015.
  • It is recommended that a skills retention mechanism and strategy be developed to allow for a career path for the SAPS members within the DFO environment instead of promoting them to another post level outside the DFO environment.

The current situation in the Western Cape suggests that National Minster of Police call for a period of firearm amnesty to reduce the circulation of illegally owned firearms, as well as to encourage others to hand in their unwanted legal weapons.

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