South Africans who have illegal firearms now have a three-month window in which to hand in the weapons without facing charges. The new law went into effect on January 1.
South Africans can, until March 31, turn in illegal firearms of any type to the police without being prosecuted for their possession. However, the amnesty does not extend to crimes committed using illegal weapons.
The amnesty applies to weapons acquired by criminal means as well as to those that are not properly licensed. South Africans are required by law to have a license issued by the police for every firearm in their possession and face penalties of up to 15 years in jail for failure to do so.
While the murder rate in South Africa has fallen by 35 percent from its peak in 1995, nearly 20,000 murders were committed in 2003, with about 60 percent involving firearms. Statistics indicate firearms play a similar role in other violent crimes.
Trevor Bloem, spokesman for the minister of safety and security, told VOA the government believes that a reduction in the number of firearms in circulation will reduce the level of violent crime in this country. He said the government hopes that many South Africans will make use of the amnesty.
"Firearms play a big role in the perpetration of violent and serious crime in South Africa," he said. "And therefore the logic is that we should reduce circulation of such firearms with the objective of reducing serious and violent crimes in South Africa."
The amnesty is one element of a number of measures which came into effect with the passage of new firearms legislation last year. Another is a requirement that every privately owned firearm be re-licensed over the next four years. Mr. Bloem says the new criteria, including proficiency training and acquiring proper weapons safes, will make it much more difficult to own firearms.
"Over the next four years everyone in South Africa should have gone through the process of reapplying, or reregistering, its reapplying actually because there is no guarantee they will retain legal ownership of their firearms since certain criteria will have to be fulfilled," he added.
Mr. Bloem says the long-term goal of the government is to greatly reduce the number of both legal and illegal firearms in South Africa and also to ensure much more responsible and safe legal gun ownership.
For more information visit South African Police Services' website: http://www.saps.gov.za/default.htm
or call: +27-12-353-6111