No-firearms sign
(Getty)
  • The Supreme Court of Appeal has knocked down a 2018 interdict granted by the high court in Pretoria that prevented police from going after South Africans with expired gun licences.
  • That leaves somewhere around 450,000 gun owners stripped of protection they had from being pursued by the SA Police Service because their licences had expired.
  • Gun owners had argued that taking away their weapons would present 'a clear and pressing danger to the security of the state".
  • But 1.7 million other firearm owners had managed to renew their licences, and unlicensed firearms are the real danger, the SCA says. 
  • For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

* This article has been updated below.

Somewhere in the region of 450,000 firearms owners with expired licences have been stripped of legal protection in place since mid-2018, which had prevented the SA Police Service (SAPS) from pursuing them.

In a judgement published on Friday, the Supreme Court of Appeal agreed with the minister and commissioner of police that the high court in Pretoria should not have granted an interim interdict to the group The Gun Owners of South Africa, and overturned it.

That interdict had a significant practical effect, said the SCA, having "disabled" the system in the Firearms Control Act by which firearm licences in SA were renewed – and terminated "by prohibiting the SAPS from demanding or accepting the surrender of firearms by licence-holders whose firearm licences expired, because they failed to renew their licences within the timeframe prescribed" by legislation.

That had left in legal limbo somewhere between 436,000 and 450,000 firearms.

Allowing such a suspension of the system meant that "lethal weapons would be left in the hands of persons, some or many of whom are no longer competent or capable of handling guns safely or responsibly, thereby endangering their own lives and the lives of others," said the appeals court.

"There is a real risk that some or many of these firearms, which are now illegally in the possession of their owners, may be stolen or lost and end up in the hands of criminals who may injure or kill others."

Gun ownership is not a fundamental right but a privilege, the court said.

The SCA had harsh words for the judge who granted the interdict in the first place, as well as for the conduct in litigation by the gun owners' association, and awarded costs against the group.

Before the interdict had been granted police warned firearm owners that they had to surrender firearms when licences expired, or face criminal prosecution.

That position appeared to be validated in the judgment.

"Once a licence is terminated for whatever reason, including the holder’s failure to renew it timeously before it lapsed, the holder is then in unlawful possession of a firearm, which is a criminal offence," said the SCA.

The Gun Owners of SA had argued that the case was a matter of "life and death" for some gun owners, including security companies, and that there was "a clear and pressing danger to the security of the state".

But some 1.7 million people who hold firearms for self-defence had managed to renew their licences in time, the SCA said.

On Friday afternoon Gun Owners of SA said in a statement that "[the judgment - whilst scathing - is not the end of the road."

"GOSA will continue to stand fast in its pursuit of securing the best interests of the South African firearm-owning community.

"However - at this stage - GOSA has been hit with a major blow by way of cost order and must generate the funds to satisfy the same as per the Court order."

Other than asking for money to help pay the legal bill, it did not say exactly how it would proceed, though.

"Our legal team will report soon with an analysis of the judgment and our proposed route forward for expired licence holders," it said. 

This article was updated with a response to the judgment from Gun Owners of South Africa, issued after initial publication.

(Compiled by Phillip de Wet)

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