Among the activities that will be seriously hobbled by the ill-considered draft Firearms Control Amendment Bill are movie production, shooting sports, hunting and gun collecting. This cannot stand.
The proposed new Firearms Control Amendment Bill (Act, summary) not only does a grave injustice to private citizens who wish to own firearms for self-defence purposes, as I wrote in a previous column.
It is not only based on poorly conceived arguments about the supposed connection between licensing legal firearms and gun-related crime, as I wrote in a follow-up.
It is also a travesty for numerous other businesses related to legal firearm ownership, including the domestic film industry, shooting sports, hunting and gun collecting. It imposes irrational restrictions and limitations, and if those aren’t enough to kill off these activities, the ever-more-burdensome bureaucracy of legal gun ownership surely will.
World-class film industry
The South African film industry is worth an estimated R20 billion, throughout the value chain. It is one of the oldest in the world, having started in 1896, soon after Auguste and Louis Lumière screened the first-ever commercial film in 1895.
Cape Town plays host to a world-class, Hollywood-style film studio complex – the first in Africa and widely viewed as the best of its kind in the developing world.
Besides domestic film-making, the industry specialises in what is called ‘facilitation’, with local producers playing host to international film and television productions, providing crews, locations, props, sets, extras and support services.
Support from the Department of Trade and Industry has made South Africa one of the more attractive film destinations in the world.
Dozens of high-profile international film productions have been filmed in South Africa over the past two decades, including movies such as Hotel Rwanda, Lord of War, Blood Diamond, Machine Gun Preacher, The Siege of Jadotville and series such as Strike Back, Black Sails, Warrior, Raised By Wolves and multiple History Channel documentaries.
The industry provides stable employment to 25 000 people, with thousands more working periodically as extras, and not counting the knock-on effects in the accommodation, catering and related support industries.
Now, one rash amendment bill by one rash government department threatens to upend all this success.
The film industry uses props that would be seriously affected by the amendment. The most obvious is guns known as ‘blank dischargers’, which are real firearms modified to fire only blanks. They also use blank cartridges, as well as dummy ammunition, which is made to look like real cartridges, but without the explosive charge that would render them dangerous.
What is a movie industry without guns and ammo?
Bruce Wentzel is the owner of Hire Arms, a company specialising in replica, stunt, deactivated, blank-firing and custom-built weapons, battle gear, uniforms and period props. As a movie armourer, it has served the film industry for 35 years.
According to Wentzel, there are at least ten ways in which the Firearms Control Amendment Bill could spell catastrophe for his business, and for the film industry in general.
Under section 20 of the proposed new laws, the use in a movie of any semi-automatic or automatic weapon and military armaments, even if they fire only blanks, and even if they are only imitations of the original, require not only that the accredited armourer possess a licence for the weapon, but also that they obtain prior written approval from the Registrar of the Central Firearm Registry (CFR).
‘Anyone who has ever dealt with the CFR knows that this is an exercise fraught with peril,’ says Wentzel. ‘Given the tight timelines on film productions it will effectively mean that film schedules will be held to ransom by CFR’s lack of capacity and inability to provide the necessary documentation in a timeous fashion. Hire Arms’s experience is that CFR has never ever acknowledged receipt of correspondence nor have they ever reacted to requests for a response.’
Says Wentzel: ‘Ridley Scott, a top film producer frequently involved in local productions, probably won’t be taking too kindly to having his filming schedule shunted around by the folks at CFR who may or may not grant the necessary permission for him to have the required number of M4 blank dischargers on the set of Raised By Wolves. Suddenly, despite all the other benefits that have enticed the award-winning director to shoot his production in South Africa, he will be thinking twice about filming a third season of his hit series on this country’s soil, as will every other director or producer of any film that requires any semi or auto blank dischargers.’
The new law provides for a temporary authorisation to possess a firearm, but Wentzel again points to unanswered correspondence with the CFR: ‘Due to delays with temporary permits the international R400 million production Lord of War almost went to another country to make the movie. A tremendous amount of foreign investment was nearly lost to South Africa as a result of CFR delays despite repeated emails and requests to CFR personnel.’
The amendment bill reclassifies muzzle-loaders as firearms for the purpose of the law, and expects them all to carry a serial number and be licenced. It doesn’t explain how antique weapons without serial numbers should obtain them, or how long it will take to issue such numbers to the 600-odd muzzle-loaders owned by the movie industry for use in historical productions.
‘Given CFR’s track record, how long will it take to get these muzzle-loaders licensed,’ asks Wentzel, ‘since most do not have maker’s names, numbers or calibers noted?’
A new section in the law requires the owners of all firearms, including those used on film sets, to submit their weapons for ‘ballistic sampling’. How the CFR expects to maintain a database of ballistic samples when it cannot cope with a simple firearm registration database is left as an exercise for the reader. Besides, as Wentzel points out, how do you do ballistic testing on a firearm that only fires blanks?
The amendment reaffirms that firearms licensed for business purposes, as movie props are, must be relicensed every two years. Says Wentzel: ‘Why does a blank discharger need to be relicensed in the first place? Most movie armoury companies’ past experience has shown that with licence renewals on the previous two-year validity system none were completed within a two-year time frame, and some licences have had renewals outstanding for over six years, so once again this is a nonsensical and unworkable idea that will cripple suppliers of movie firearms completely. Some companies have a third of their inventory still waiting for licence renewals to be re-issued after five years. Ten-year licences would make far more sense given current backlogs at the CFR.’
A new clause added to section 73 of the original Act says that nobody may transport any firearm or ammunition in South Africa without a transportation permit. This is another extremely onerous burden.
‘So for every film production a permit will be required to transport a blank discharger from the company to the film set,’ says Wentzel. ‘How is this going to work when more often than not less than 24 hours’ notice is given by a production company to a movie gun supplier that they need a firearm for a scene in a film production?’
To add insult to injury, section 86, which actually governs firearm transporters’ permits for people transporting firearms or ammunition for reward, also gets a new section, saying that any person who is not in possession of a firearm transporter’s permit may not transport more than three firearms at a time.
This flatly contradicts the amendment to section 73, which prohibits transporting firearms altogether without such a permit. In any event, placing a limit on the number of firearms that may be transported is also a ridiculous proposition for the film industry, where many productions require a great number of weapons on the set.
A new offence is created by the proposed amendment, prohibiting any person, except the manufacturer of ammunition, to be in possession of equipment to reload ammunition.
Wentzel explains why this will hamstring the industry: ‘A staggering array of different blank dischargers from different periods and different calibers are currently held by movie firearm companies in South Africa, all in the interest of providing production companies with the most authentic and period-correct guns possible. Blank cartridges are not available for all of these blank dischargers and often need to be specifically made on reloading equipment. Certain guns like Glock pistols need specially modified 9mm blanks in order to work efficiently. Reloading equipment is needed to do this. A further problem is that of dummy rounds, frequently used on movie sets, which are not lethal but must still be manufactured on conventional reloading machines. Once again, this proposed amendment will have disastrous consequences for movie gun suppliers and their film production clients.’
There is to be a new limit on the amount of ammunition a firearm owner may possess for their weapon, and that limit is a mere 100 cartridges. Once again, have any of the drafters of this bill watched any movies lately?
‘Most auto blank dischargers have a rate of fire ranging between 600 and 1 000 blank cartridges per minute. So the production company will have between 4 to 6 seconds of firing action before the blanks are finished. A production like Starship Troopers 3, a $20 million budget production, used 28 000 blanks in one night’s shooting and this will obviously not be possible in South Africa in future should the proposed amendments pass. Machine Gun Preacher used 18 000 blanks in three days on a local set.’
Sport shooting and hunting
These and other provisions also affect those who wish to own firearms for purposes of hunting or sports shooting.
There’s a new clause that requires an occasional hunter or occasional sports shooter to either own the property on which they will be shooting, or produce written permission from the owner of a property where the shooting will take place.
Of course, being an occasional hunter, one is not likely to know where one might hunt. Being an occasional sports shooter, one might not know at which facility one might go shooting.
The amendment restricts the number of firearm licences a person may own to four if they are occasional hunters or sports shooters, and to six for dedicated hunters or sports shooters, affiliated with recognised organisations for this purpose. Of these, at most two may be for handguns, at most two for shotguns, and at most two for semi-automatic rifles (but only for those who have been dedicated hunters or sports shooters for more than two years).
These limits are to be reduced by one for each firearms licence a person owns in any other category. Forget trying to be both a hunter and a sports shooter, unless you feel capable of using the same firearms for both pursuits. And if you’re a movie armourer, you can forget about ever going hunting or sports shooting.
These finicky rules substantially limit what firearm owners can do. There are many different categories of sports shooting event, for example, each of which requires a dedicated firearm for that exact purpose. Hunters, too, might reasonably require a larger arsenal, for use against various kinds of targets.
Both hunters and sports shooters might want to own backups of each firearm they require for their pursuit, should their primary weapons fail. There is no leeway in the amended law for any of this.
Licence periods for each of these categories have been reduced from ten years to five years, placing yet another bureaucratic burden on the CFR, and adding more red tape for legal firearm owners.
Like with the movie industry, the limit on ammunition possession, set at only 100 cartridges per licenced firearm, is woefully inadequate. In sports shooting events, a single event might consume 25 or more cartridges. Practising for those events would take many multiples of that number.
In a day spent on a range or a tactical course, a typical sports shooter can easily go through hundreds of cartridges. The new amendment would cut such days woefully short.
The rule that prohibits reloading of cartridges also badly affects both hunters and sports shooters. For many people, buying factory ammunition is simply too expensive. Both hunters and sports shooters need to practice. A lot. Reloading cartridges is a way to keep costs down, bringing these activities within reach of those of modest means.
One would think that a government for all the people would be sympathetic to the plight of the poor, but it seems determined to restrict sports shooting and hunting to only the wealthiest of elites.
Among sports shooters, there is another concern. Factory-loaded cartridges are simply not good enough for precision shooting. It is impossible to compete successfully in precision shooting events with factory ammunition, and competitors routinely load their own cartridges. This will now be outlawed.
A further casualty of the reloading ban would be firearms dealers, who make a significant part of their profits from reloading and recycling spent cartridges.
Collectors and curators
Gun collectors are also up against the wall. The provisions permitting a person to collect and possess firearms and ammunition in a private collection – as opposed to a collection for display to the public in an accredited museum – are to be deleted in their entirety.
Existing licences remain valid until they expire, but will not be renewed, and such collections will have to be surrendered to the tender mercies of the state.
In addition, since muzzle-loaders will now be classified as firearms, your great-grandfather’s Boer War-era Mauser or Lee Enfield must also be sold to a museum or surrendered to the state.
Clubs catering to owners of antique weaponry, such as the venerable Transvaal Muzzle-Loaders Shotgun Club, which has served historic gun nerds for over 50 years, are also in the firing line. They will have to become accredited sports shooting organisations, and get their members to licence their black-powder rifles and shotguns as sports shooting firearms. The alternative would be to close their doors.
Museum pieces, instead of having to undergo a reversible and non-damaging procedure to deactivate them, must now be permanently disabled, which inevitably involves damaging the specimens.
It is a mystery why the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service, under minister Bheki Cele, is insistent on cracking down on all these activities. The number of movie props, museum pieces, sharp-shooters’ rifles or muzzle-loading antiques ever used in the commission of crimes must be vanishingly small, if not zero.
There certainly are no statistics to prove that they pose a significant threat to policing gun crime.
There are so many problems with the proposed Firearms Control Amendment Bill that the only rational solution would be to scrap it in its entirety. There are alternatives for a police service that is concerned about illegal weaponry and gun crime.
For a start, it can focus on controlling illegal, not legal, firearms. Provided they are responsible and competent, law-abiding gun-owners should not be punished for the police’s failure to crack down on the millions of illegal firearms in circulation. It’s not as if the owners of the millions of illegal guns are going to turn in their weapons voluntarily because the law says so.
Besides, the police isn’t even capable of controlling its own firearms. The IRR’s Broken Blue Line project has delved deep into the involvement of the police in serious and violent crime in South Africa, as Daily Friend deputy editor Marius Roodt describes in his recent article on the subject.
The solution to this problem is not to remove legally owned firearms from circulation.
The Firearms Control Act could also be amended to implement the innovative proposal by Gideon Joubert’s civil rights group, Paratus, to licence the person and register the firearm. This would significantly simplify the entire firearm control bureaucracy in South Africa, and maybe permit the CFR to clear its hallways of those stacks of unprocessed applications.
To help in the campaign of opposition to this frightfully harmful amendment bill, sign up to the IRR’s campaign to stop it in its tracks. In addition, write a submission to government via Dear SA’s campaign portal.
On the eve of the battle of Thermopylae, Persian king Xerxes the Great wrote to King Leonidas I of the Spartans, ‘Hand over your arms.’
Leonidas defiantly answered, ‘Molon labe,’ which means ‘Come and take them.’
The hopelessly outnumbered forces of Leonidas fought to the death in one of history’s most famous last stands.
It is time for South African firearm owners to tell Bheki Cele: ‘Molon labe’.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR
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