Sports have always been a means by which people test themselves, as individuals and relative to others. They are among the oldest forms of entertainment, of ritual and of competition. 

They also take numerous forms, drawing at times on the objects and activities of the wider world, and adapting them for the playing field. Jukskei arose from transport drivers using pieces of their yokes in throwing contests. Various martial arts – such as karate, capoeira, stick fighting, kung fu or fencing – were developed both as fighting systems and expressions of cultural etiquette. Caber tossing came about, it is said, by lumberjacks handling logs. Cycling and motor racing sought to introduce tests of skill and endurance with their respective technologies.

So it is with sports shooting. This is a venerable activity whose pedigree goes back hundreds of years. Target shooting became a common pastime as the development of firearms, and organisations dedicated to encouraging proficiency and responsibility in their use – such as the Schweizerischer Schützenverein in Switzerland and the National Rifle Association in the United States – having been established during the 19th century. Shooting events have been included in every modern Olympics since 1896, with the exception of 1904 and 1928.

Competitive shooting is no less a sporting activity in South Africa than soccer, or netball, or rugby – smaller in terms of participation, certainly, but a recognised sport nonetheless, both for casual and regular practitioners.

Sports shooters have the same sense of pride and enthusiasm for their sport as do the aficionados of any other sporting activity; they draw the same fulfilment from it. As Kgofu Koape, a competitive shottist, told the Daily Friend: ‘It’s fun. I thoroughly enjoy it. It keeps us busy. Shooting is cardio, moving, reloading, keeping your eye on the target…’ 

Tebogo Kwape, a regular participant in shooting competitions (and an avid mountaineer) explains: ‘I get people asking me about my mountaineering – why would you put yourself through that? Well, it’s the same with shooting. It instils discipline, confidence, the need to improve. You take those things into your daily living.’

Opportunity to bond

He adds that shooting provides an opportunity to bond with and mentor others in his family. On this, Themba Kubheka, another serious competitive shottist, comments: ‘I get a chance to bond with others through the recreational side of the sport. My whole family bonds through it: my son is taking a serious interest in shooting… I take him to a range, it’s a safe and controlled environment. I can keep an eye him, it gives him a positive and responsible attitude to guns. And it has created and maintained a connection between us.’

At the moment, all this is recognised in South African legislation. The Firearms Control Act recognises the ownership and use of firearms for sporting purposes, both for ‘occasional’ users and for ‘dedicated’ ones – the latter for those participating on a near professional level, and complying with stringent registration requirements.

But if amendments to the FCA are pushed through, the future for the sport in all its manifestations will be dim indeed. This is probably the intention. A document that surfaced recently – produced in 2016 by the Ministry of Police and entitled ‘Report of the Committee on Firearms Control and Management in South Africa’ – makes it clear that a ‘gun free’ society is the ‘policy ideal’, and that the proposed amendments are a concerted move towards achieving that. 

The report is not of high quality, and often misrepresents the provisions of the FCA. But it leaves the reader in no doubt that it sees all private firearm ownership as a problem, and that it does not so much seek a ‘strengthening’ of firearm control measures as a comprehensive recasting of them. The amendment thus introduces a new preamble that replaces what at least acknowledged the constitutional principle around the right to life, to one that asserts the dominance of the state and its agenda.

It’s also not surprising that the Civilian Secretariat for Police Service conceded that no one outside government had been consulted during the drafting of the amendments. (It appears though, that certain documents had curiously made their way to anti-firearm activists.)

Rooting them out

In driving this agenda, guns are seen as largely undifferentiated objects and the imperative of rooting them out as one that applies to all of them equally … bar those held by the state.

Sports shooters need to take note of this. 

The amendments will chew into the sport, quite deliberately and intentionally. They will erect barriers that go beyond any rational public safety objective, and certainly without regard (or perhaps with malicious regard) for the interests of sports shooters.

The most obvious of these is the provision that dedicated sports shooters – these are the hard core of the sport, who earn this categorisation by membership of recognised associations and active participation in sports shooting activities – are to be limited to a maximum of six firearms, with restrictions within this number, such as a maximum of two handguns. Sports shooting is complicated: there are numerous codes, categories and divisions, each of which requires its own firearm. The ergonomic characteristics of firearms differ sharply from one another. And as with any sport, carrying back-up equipment is absolutely standard practice. Should one gun become damaged or malfunction, another should be on hand. (‘If you play football, do you just take one ball to the match?’ asks Tebogo.) A regular participant in the sport could make a quite reasonable case for owning 10 firearms or more. And it is for this reason that dedicated sports shooters are permitted by the FCA to own greater numbers of firearms than is the case for other people.

Let us be clear: this places a particular duty of care and responsibility on their shoulders. Yet dedicated status must be earned and doing so is intended to establish a bona fide involvement. It is possible that this could be abused, but there is scant empirical evidence of this, merely a generalised accusation on the part of the authorities. 

Hurdles and barriers 

Even if the argument for limiting the number of firearms could be upheld, the amendment goes beyond this. It consciously places hurdles and barriers that can only be understood as a tactic of making the sport inaccessible to large numbers of South Africans.

These include limits on the amount of ammunition that a shooter may hold (reducing this from 200 to 100 cartridges per firearm), prohibiting reloading of cartridges and introducing requirements for a permit to transport a firearm. All of this ramps up the costs and logistical difficulties of sports shooting. The amendment also imposes additional burdens on associations, by requiring them to ‘verify’ applications of their members with respect to the ‘use, purpose and category’ of each firearm.

But probably most jarring are the provisions relating to allowing others to use one’s firearm. A licensed firearm holder who is 21 years old and has held the licence for three years may allow his or her gun to be used, under his or her supervision, by another person who must be over the age of 16. This will have the effect of disrupting the development of young people’s shooting skills. Those we have spoken to invariably credit parents or grandparents with having sparked their interest in the sport as youngsters – ‘my father was shottist through and through,’ comments Kgofu Koape. 

Limiting firearm handling to those over the age of 16 will cut off much of the skills pipeline for sports shooting – indeed, for the firearm culture more broadly. It’s no exaggeration to say that this is part of the intention. 

Leaving the more sinister intact

But doing so will likely hit the most positive and valuable parts of that culture hardest, leaving the more sinister intact. For introducing young people, in a controlled manner, to gun use is the best avenue for cultivating gun competence and a healthy respect for firearms. It locates firearms within a positive, affirming context, one that demands skill and prudence; not as enforcers of crass power or as sinister icons to be feared.

Even among those who have no interest in sports shooting, or who hold guns as a means of self-protection, this is a message that should not be forgotten.

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Terence Corrigan is the Project Manager at the Institute, where he specialises in work on property rights, as well as land and mining policy. A native of KwaZulu-Natal, he is a graduate of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (Pietermaritzburg). He has held various positions at the IRR, South African Institute of International Affairs, SBP (formerly the Small Business Project) and the Gauteng Legislature – as well as having taught English in Taiwan. He is a regular commentator in the South African media and his interests include African governance, land and agrarian issues, political culture and political thought, corporate governance, enterprise and business policy.