Firearms registry is 'in chaos'
Lobbyists take cops to court after bungling leaves database in a shambles
The police have lost control of SA’s firearms. This, in a nutshell, is the claim by exasperated gun lobbyists who have turned to the courts in a bid to fix the “chaotic state of affairs” within the SA Police Service’s central firearms registry.
The SA Arms and Ammunition Dealers Association (SAAADA) claimed in an affidavit, seen by Times Select, that police management had failed to abide by the Firearms Control Act by allowing computer program software licences to expire and not having implemented necessary electronic interface systems between the SAPS and firearms dealers.
The result is that there is currently no electronic database that tracks the sale, ownership and transfer of firearms and ammunition.
Even before the software licence expired, the firearm licensing IT system was allegedly unstable and often crashed. This would cause reboots of the system, wiping out the latest data that showed firearms sale history, SAAADA said.
Now officials have to process firearm licence applications manually, creating massive backlogs and inaccuracies.
“After IT system crashes, gun owners, especially those renewing their licences, often discover their guns are no longer in their names,” SAAADA chairperson Jonathan Fouche said.
“That’s because when the IT systems are reset after a crash, they go back to their default mode which does not reflect up-to-date information on new gun owners. The system often shows firearms are still registered on the original dealer’s stock.
“This means many gun owners were unknowingly in the illegal possession of their firearms.”
Fouche said a large number of firearm owners have been affected. “We have members who have imported over 1,000 firearms, sold them and years later when those buyers go to renew their licences, they are told the gun is back on the dealer’s stock.”
Police spokesperson Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo declined to comment, saying only: “We are unable to respond to these questions as there is a pending litigation on these matters.”
Under the Firearms Control Act (FCA) the police should keep an electronic database of every firearm and round of ammunition sold, including the buyer’s details. But the system is not operational, with central firearms registry administrator, Brigadier Lucky Mabule, revealing in court papers that its software licence had expired.
The result, said lawyers, gunsmiths and dealers, is that legal firearm owners are not registered on the system.
Fouche, in an affidavit filed in June in the High Court in Pretoria, said the registry’s IT systems were “completely ineffective”.
His affidavit reads: “Electronic connectivity, which is meant to be the cornerstone of the FCA, is non-existent. The failure to implement the electronic connectivity has led to a failure of the FCA.
“If not implemented timeously the continued loss of control by police over firearms in general will result in a complete loss of control and failure of the FCA.”
He claimed a firearms control system, which he said cost more than R400m to develop, was never implemented.
SAAADA wants the court to:
• Compel the SAPS to implement the Firearms eSubmission system within three months;
• Disclose its licensing policies, including internal processes undertaken around licensing applications;
• Interdict the SAPS from arresting any licensed firearm dealers who have submitted information to the police but whose details are not contained in the registry; and
• Interdict the SAPS from refusing to issue licences.
Mabule, in an answering affidavit, confirmed that the FCA required dealers to have “workstations” linked to the SAPS central firearms database.
He said connectivity had been affected in the registry, but it was not true that the registry was in a chaotic state.
The eSubmissions system was designed to replace manual submissions and allow gunsmiths and dealers to submit information on sales electronically, Mabule continued.
He said there were two phases in a plan to ultimately implement an electronic system. The backlogs were not caused by the non-preparedness of the registry.
“While electronic connectivity would assist in identifying problems, each case has its own history. A lot is being done to improve operations of the (registry) – breakdowns are not intentional.”
Mabule said in his affidavit that the police were complying with the turnaround strategy raised in parliament’s police portfolio committee.
“We are willing to comply with the act in regards to the connectivity, but due to certain circumstances connectivity has not been realised.
“Manual systems, which include an e-mail address which is monitored daily, have been put in place. This has received some positive results, but is not without its challenges.”
He says those working at the registry could not be blamed for systems and databases not being accurate, since the functioning of the database also depends on the information dealers provide.
“Inaccuracies cannot be put down entirely to electronic connectivity, but also corruption on the side of some dealers and some police.”
Mabule adds in his affidavit that the corruption was being dealt with.
Lawyer Martin Hood, who represents SAAADA, said the situation pointed to an appalling state of administration within the registry.
“How do you let basic administration errors like expired software licences occur, especially when it comes to systems crucial for the control of firearms?
“People are potentially being endangered by this lack of gun control, with legal firearm owners at risk of being criminalised.”