Gun violence and prevention in South Africa

Gun violence and prevention in South Africa – Understand

"An average of 19,500 firearms are reported stolen or misplaced each year in South Africa."
Gun Free South Africa's ad campaign calls on citizens to hand in their guns.

Gun Deaths in South Africa

“Sixteen people are murdered with a gun every day in South Africa.”
The 2015/16 National Murder Study released at the time of the annual crime statistics shows that 16 people were shot and killed every day, just under 6000 people a year. This is a significant reduction in gun deaths, from 1998, when 12,298 people were shot and killed, averaging 34 people a day.2

Out of the 18,615 murders during this period, guns accounted for 32.1%. This is below the global average - according to the United Nations, 41% of murders globally are committed with a firearm.4​ However, this wasn’t always the case; 41.5% of all reported murders in South Africa in 1994 were committed with a firearm, increasing to 49.4% in 1998.5

The reason for the decline in gun deaths is SA’s Firearms Control Act (2000).  Research published in the American Journal of Public Health (2014) shows that over 4,500 lives were saved in Cape Town, Durban, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Pretoria from 2001 to 2005 because of the Firearms Control Act.6 

  • For more information on the impact of the Firearms Control Act, see Guns and Intimate Femicide below.
  • For more information on the statistics used in this introduction, please read the "Note on the data" below.


“Two people commit suicide with a gun every day in South Africa.”
780 people committed suicide with a gun in 2009 i.e. 2 people a day.7 Many factors lead to individuals trying to end their lives, so it’s important to understand why people attempt or commit suicide in order to help and support them, but a growing body of research indicates that how people attempt suicide is also important.

Reducing access to lethal means is an effective way to increase the odds that a suicide attempt will end in care, not in death. About 85% of attempts with a firearm are fatal: that's a much higher case fatality rate than for nearly every other method. Many of the most widely used suicide attempt methods have case fatality rates below 5%.

How do guns differ from other means?

Guns are more lethal. They’re quick. And they’re irreversible. Once the trigger is pulled, death usually follows within minutes. Attempters who take pills, inhale car exhaust or use razors have some time to reconsider mid-attempt and summon help or be rescued. The method itself often fails, even in the absence of a rescue.

Even suicide attempters who use hanging can stop mid-way as about half of hanging suicides are partial-suspension (meaning the person can release the pressure if they change their mind).8 With a firearm, once the trigger is pulled, there's no turning back.      

What can you do?

Putting time and distance between a suicidal person and a gun may save a life. If you have firearms at home and a household member is suicidal or at risk (e.g. an impulsive teen, a person struggling with depression or drug or alcohol problems, or someone going through difficulties like divorce or arrest), seriously consider removing the guns from the home; see for the procedure to hand in a legal firearm to the police for destruction.

There are different ways to help prevent suicides, but one step is clear. Reducing a suicidal person’s access to lethal means helps save lives, particularly among impulsive attempters.

Firearms are the most lethal suicide method. Suicide attempts with a firearm are almost always fatal, while those with other methods are less likely to kill. And nine out of ten people who survive an attempt do not go on to die by suicide later.

Men and Women

The 2009 National Injury Mortality Surveillance System shows that 90% of gun violence victims are men:

  • 89% (5,711) of the 6,428 people shot and killed were men and 11% (717) were women.
  • 89% (4,902) of the 5,513 gun-related murder victims were men and 11% (611) were women.
  • 88% (687) of the 780 gun-related suicide victims were men and 12% (93) were women. 

Guns and Intimate Femicide9

While women are less likely to be victims of gun violence, firearms still play a significant role in violence against women, being used in intimate femicide (defined as the killing of a female person by an intimate partner), to rape, and to threaten and intimidate.

The findings of the most recent intimate femicide study in SA show that the number of women killed by their intimate partner has dropped from 4 women a day in 1999 (translating into one woman being killed every six hours) to 3 women a day (every 8 hours) in 2009.

The reason for this drop in intimate femicide is because of a decline in the number of women that were shot and killed compared to deaths by other means, including stab and blunt injuries (see Table 1).  The researchers attribute this decrease in gun deaths to the implementation of the Firearms Control Act (2000).

  Gun-related Stab-related Blunt-related
Table 1: Comparing Mechanism of Death in Intimate and Non-Intimate Femicide in 1999 and 2009
Intimate 1999 30.6% 33.2% 33.2%
Intimate 2009 17.4% (halved) 31.4% (the same) 29.5% (slight decrease)
Non-intimate 1999  33.6% 34.3%    21.2%
Non-intimate 2009 17.1 (halved)         35.5% (the same)      22.4% (the same)

Gun violence and disability

Between 18 and 72 people survive a gun violence incident in SA each day, often with severe disabilities.10. In 2014, treating gunshots in South Africa was costed at R6 billion, which is approximately 4% of the National Health Budget.11

Number of Guns and Gun Owners in SA

“In 2013/2014, civilians lost 18 guns a day and the police lost 2 guns a day.” SAPS 2013/2014 Annual Report [20]
As of March 2015 there were:

  • 1.8 million licensed civilian gun owners in South Africa (1,749,03512), which means that civilian gun owners make up just 3.4% of South Africa’s 51.8 million population. In other words, out of a group of 100 people, 3 own a gun. This is a drop from just over 2 million (2,027,411) gun owners in 1999,13 or 5 gun owners per 100 people.14
  • Just over 3 million firearms are registered to civilians (3,081,17315); translating into a ratio of 5.9 guns per 100 people. This is a 14% drop from 1999, when 3.5 million (3,554,336) guns were registered to civilians, which is a ratio of 8.3 firearms for every 100 people.16   

Lost and Stolen Guns

“You are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence.”
A common belief is that gun crime is only committed with illegal guns and that the only solution is to mop illegal guns up through amnesties, buy-backs, police search and seizure as well as intelligence operations. The majority of guns are legally manufactured: all illegal guns were once legal before being diverted to the illegal pool of weapons in South Africa. 

There are three ways that legal guns leak into the illegal pool of weapons in South Africa:

  1. Legal guns are smuggled from neighbouring countries, though research indicates that this is low, and that guns are more likely to be smuggled to neighbouring countries.17
  2. Fraud, corruption and poor enforcement  of the Firearms Control Act means that people who are not ‘fit and proper’ are issued with firearm certificates, licences, permits or authorisations. 
  3. Loss and theft of firearms from civilians and state institutions. Data shows that firearm loss and theft is the most significant source of illegal guns in South Africa, though statistics from various sources on the number of guns that are lost or stolen each year is not consistent. For example, from 2011 to 2014 civilians  lost between 15 and 28 guns every day and police officers  lost between 2 and 5 guns every day. 

With the high number of guns that are lost and stolen, one way to reduce the diversion of legal guns to the illegal pool is to strictly regulate the gun licensing process.

Guns and Violence in SA - Alarming statistics (c) Gun Free SA

Legal or Illegal Guns In Crime

"If your stolen gun was there, so were you."
Ad campaign by Gun Free South Africa
All illegal guns were once legal before being diverted to the illegal pool of weapons in South Africa.  With the high number of guns that are lost and stolen, one obvious way of reducing the diversion of legal guns to the illegal pool is to strictly regulate the gun licensing process, thus ensuring that only responsible people are granted firearm licences. 

That said; legal guns are also used to commit crime, e.g. a study looking at suicide among intimate femicide perpetrators showed that this was more likely among professional or white-collar workers, mostly employed in the police, military or private security industry, reflecting easy access to guns in these professions as a risk factor.21

Two-thirds of the perpetrators owned a legal gun, and the authors note that 91.5% of these double deaths (intimate femicide-suicide) “might have been prevented should gun ownership have been restricted”.22

The Risks of Gun Ownership

{pullquote_6}Gun related deaths are not indiscriminate acts of chance that randomly affect people. There is a simple cause and effect - the presence of a gun puts everyone at risk of injury and death.  

For many South Africans having a gun in the home is about protecting themselves, their families and their possessions against a stranger intruder, but research in South Africa shows that you are four times more likely to have your gun used against you than to be able to use it successfully in self-defence.23

International evidence shows that owners of handguns are significantly more often victims of contact crimes (murder, assaults, robbery); and households that own guns run a higher risk of seeing their members being criminally victimised - either by household members or by outsiders who are not put off by the presence of a gun.24

The evidence in support of the link between strong firearms control and lives saved continues to mount.25 While South Africa’s experience confirms global studies showing that stricter firearm legislation saves lives; recent research in Australia has examined the impact on gun crime in general – which is important, as fatalities constitute only a small portion of gun violence. The study concludes that Australia’s gun law reforms led to significant reductions in armed robbery and attempted murder.26

The Firearms Control Act

Adopted by Parliament in 2000, the Firearms Control Act (FCA) is the principal Act governing firearms control in South Africa. Its purpose is two-fold:

  1. To establish a comprehensive and effective system of firearm control and management; and
  2. To ensure the effective monitoring and enforcement of legislation as it pertains to the control of firearms.

In South Africa gun ownership is not a right but a privilege governed by law which sets criteria for ownership.

Although there are variations in approaches to strengthening national firearm laws, most countries’ laws-including South Africa- are based on a combination of the following standards developed by US criminologist F. Zimring in 1991 as a measure for effective gun control (Zimring, 1991):

  • prohibit/restrict certain types of weapons and ammunition;
  • prohibit/restrict certain uses of weapons and ammunition;
  • prohibit/restrict certain users of weapons.

The FCA has several important elements that contribute to reducing access to guns:

Licence the person, Register the gun

Licensing the person and registering the gun is a central part of any registration system, as it records the details of a firearm, together with information about the person responsible for this weapon, so linking a firearm to an owner.

The registration of guns also helps support law enforcement officials in their efforts to trace guns, investigate crime and support criminal prosecution.

Two-tier licensing system

The principle underlying this provision in the Act places responsibility onto the firearm applicant to show that she/he is both competent and ‘fit and proper’ to own a gun.

  • Establish competency: The competency certificate sets a minimum standard for owning a firearm:  aged 21 years or older; not dependent on any intoxicating or narcotic substance; not convicted, whether in or outside South Africa, of an offence involving the use of a firearm or violence; and successfully completed the prescribed test on knowledge of the law. Only those meeting this standard can enter the system, and apply for a firearm licence.
  • Issue licence to possess to ‘fit and proper’ person: Having obtained a competency certificate, the person wishing to own a firearm has to then apply for a firearm licence. 

Renewals of Firearm Licence

The system of renewals is an integral part of the licensing and registration system which makes provision for the legal gun owner to reaffirm his/her responsibility for the firearm registered in his/her name or be given an opportunity to explain why he or she should no longer be accountable for its whereabouts. Such explanations may include a lawful transfer, theft (supported by a police report) or voluntary surrender (supported by evidence).

Firearm licence renewal requires that genuine need for the continued ownership of the firearm must be proven again.

Other benefits of a renewal system include enhancing police investigations; improving police officer safety; and reducing gun theft. A renewal system also helps to enforce the legal obligation to report lost or stolen firearms; which in turn allows the police to more fully understand this flow and be able to respond accordingly.

Firearm Free Zones (Section 140)

Section 140 of the FCA gives Minister of Police the power to declare (by notice in the Government Gazette) any premises or category of premises as a Firearm Free Zone (FFZ) in which no person may allow, store or carry a firearm. It is a criminal offence to contravene the FFZ status of a premise.

Schedule 4 – Penalties of the Act lists the maximum period of imprisonment:

  • For allowing a firearm or ammunition into an FFZ: Five years.
  • For carrying a firearm or ammunition in an FFZ: Ten years.
  • For storing a firearm or ammunition in an FFZ: Twenty-five years.

Gun control as violence prevention

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been in the forefront of violence prevention across the world, drawing on the experience of public health efforts to understand the cause and consequences of violence as well as using an evidence-based approach to developing primary prevention programmes and policy interventions.

The public health approach provides a framework for differentiating between risk and protective factors for violence: risk factors are those characteristics or conditions that increase the likelihood of violence occurring while protective factors are shields that reduce or eliminate these risks.

As with violence, a variety of risk and protective factors makes a person more or less likely to use a firearm against themselves or others.

Gun violence is most often associated with a combination of individual, family, school, peer, community, and sociocultural risk factors that interact over time during childhood and adolescence.

However, the most consistent predictor of gun violence is a history of violent behaviour, including witnessing violence. In addition, the easy availability or access to firearms whether in a home or a community, constitutes one of the key risk factors.

Most gun control advocates and organisations across the world have used the public health framework in understanding the nature and extent of gun violence within a particular context, and using the evidence to find out what works to prevent gun violence.

The four basic steps of the public health approach to preventing violence are easily applied to efforts to reduce and prevent gun violence. These include:

  1. Defining the problem through the systematic collection of data;
  2. Conducting research, or using existing data, to explore why violence occurs and who it affects; this includes identifying risk and protective factors for engaging in acts of violence or being a victim of violence;
  3. Designing, implementing and evaluating interventions to see what works;
  4. Scaling-up effective policy and programmes

Evidence shows that limiting access to firearms (especially for young men between 15-29 years-old) can prevent homicides, suicides and injuries, thereby reducing the costs of these forms of violence. The data also shows that countries with ‘restrictive’ firearms law and lower firearm ownership levels tend to have lower levels of gun violence.

Other interventions that have shown some success in reducing gun deaths include: legislative measures, improving enforcement of legislation, firearms amnesties and collection schemes, managing state weapons stockpiles as well as reducing demand for guns.

A note on the data

Some of the statistics for firearm-related deaths in South Africa are drawn from a 2009 mortuary study, which provides the most recent data available on injury-related mortality.  The reason for this is that while the South African Police Service (SAPS) used to provide information on the weapon used in murders and attempted murders, it no longer regularly disaggregates this information. However, in the release of the 2015/16 crime statistics, some gun-related data was given as reflected above.

Gun Free South Africa, with other organisations involved in violence prevention, have requested SAPS to provide quarterly crime statistics, including a breakdown of firearm-related crimes, specifically the use of firearms in murder and attempted murder.

Not only would this additional information enable us to assess our own programmes and activities; it would also allow the police to identify changes in firearm-related crime and thus adapt policing interventions and monitor the impact of changes in policies and practices. 


1. Unless indicated, figures are from 2009. Source: Matzopoulos, R. et al. 2015. Injury-related mortality in South Africa: a retrospective descriptive study of postmortem investigations. Bull World Health Organisation. Published online: 13 March 2015. 93: 303–313:
2. Chetty, R. 2000. Firearm Use and Distribution in South Africa. Pretoria: The National Crime Prevention Centre, p20.

3. See Table 2 below, which shows that murder rates in SA have been dropping over time; the figure of 33% of people shot in 2009 is based on SA’s 2009/10 murder figure of 16,834 to be comparable with gun death figures, which are also from 2009. Table 2 source: Serious crime during the 2003/2004 to 2010/2011 financial years and the percentage increases/decreases in crime between 2009/2010 and 2010/2011 in SAPS Crime Report 2010/2011,

  2003/04 2004/05 2005/06 2006/07 2007/08 2008/09 2009/10 2010/11
Table 2: Murder during the 2003/2004 to 2010/2011 financial years
Murder rate per 100,000     42.7 40.3 39.6 40.5 38.6 37.3 34.1 31.9
Raw figures/ Frequency 19,824 18,793 18,528 19,202 18,487 18,148 16,834 15,940

4. Global Study on Homicide 2013: Trends, Contexts, Data. 2013. Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, p16.
5. Chetty, R. 2000. Firearm Use and Distribution in South Africa. Pretoria: The National Crime Prevention Centre, p18.

6. Matzopoulos R. et al. 2014. Firearm and Nonfirearm Homicide in 5 South African Cities; A Retrospective Population-Based study, American Journal of Public Health: Research and Practice, e1-e6.
7. Information on firearm lethality and suicide prevention sourced from: Firearm Access is a Risk Factor for Suicide, Harvard School of Public Health: (accessed 29 July 2015).
8. Bennewith O, Gunnell D, Kapur N, et. al. Suicide by hanging. British Journal of  Psychiatry. 2005;186:260-1.
9. All figures are derived from Abrahams N. et al. 2013. Intimate Partner Femicide in South Africa in 1999 and 2009. PLoS Med 10(4): e1001412.doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001412.
10. The figure of 18 to 72 is based on a comprehensive global study on gun violence and disability – see Buchanan, C. (Editor). 2013. Gun Violence, Disability and Recovery, Surviving Gun Violence Project - which estimates that for every person shot and killed as many as six victims will survive, often with severe disabilities.  GFSA has conservatively estimated that between one and four people survive a gun violence incident for each of the 18 fatalities a day as opposed to between one and six.
11. van As, S. 2014. Gun violence: What it costs the body, and our country, Daily Maverick, 19 March.
12. Phiyega, R.  (South African National Police Commissioner). 2015. Implementing the Firearms Control Act. Presentation at the National Firearms Summit, Police Portfolio Committee, Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town, 24-25 March 2015. 
13. Chetty, R. Firearm Use and Distribution in South Africa (Pretoria: The National Crime Prevention Centre, 2000), p32.
14. The figure of 5 gun owners per 100 people is based on the 1999 mid-year population estimate of 43 million in Chetty, R. 2000. Firearm Use and Distribution in South Africa. Pretoria: The National Crime Prevention Centre, p32.  The actual ratio is 4.7 per 100 people, which has been rounded up to 5.
15. Phiyega, R.  (South African National Police Commissioner) (2015) Implementing the Firearms Control Act. Presentation at the National Firearms Summit, Police Portfolio Committee, Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town, 24-25 March 2015.
16. This figure is based on the 1999 mid-year population estimate of 43 million in Chetty, R. 2000. Firearm Use and Distribution in South Africa Pretoria: The National Crime Prevention Centre, p32.
17. McKenzie, K. 1999.  Domestic Gun Control Policy in Ten SADC Countries. GFSA. Hennop, E. (2000) Chapter 2: 'Illegal Firearms in Circulation in South Africa' in Gamba, Virginia. (ed) 2000. Society Under Siege: Managing Arms in South Africa. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.
18.  Annual reports are available on the South African Police Service website:
19. Kohler-Barnard, D.  2015. Question No. 1372: Written reply by the Minister of Police. National Assembly of South Africa. Internal question paper no. 10-2015: Date of publication: 17 April 2015. Hartley, W. 2014. Firearm figures confusion. Business Day, 8 December:
20. SAPS 2013/2014 Annual Report:
21. Mathews, S. et al. 2008. Intimate Femicide-Suicide in South Africa, WHO Bulletin 86/7 (2008), p552-558.
22. Mathews, S. et al. 2008. Intimate Femicide-Suicide in South Africa, WHO Bulletin 86/7 (2008), p556.
23. Altbeker, A. et al. 2000. Are South Africans Responsible Firearm Owners?  Evidence from 1,000 Dockets. Johannesburg: GFSA; Altbeker A. 1999. Guns and Public Safety: Gun Crime and Self-Defence in Alexandra and Bramley.  Johannesburg: GFSA.
24. van Kesteren, J. 2014. Revisiting the gun ownership and violence link: A multilevel analysis of victimization survey data, British Journal of Criminology, 54, p53-72.
25. Brazil and Columbia, which are similar to South Africa, have seen reductions in firearm-related deaths following legislative amendments; see: Sutton, H. et al. 2010. Implementing Brazil’s ‘Disarmament Statute’: Putting Law into Practice, Instituto Sou da Paz and Aguirre, K. et al 2009. Assessing the Effect of Policy Interventions on Small Arms Demand in Bogotá, Colombia. Documentos CERAC No. 14. CERAC/Small Arms Survey.
26. Taylor, B. and J. Li. 2015. Do fewer guns lead to less crime? Evidence from Australia, International Review of Law & Economics.
27. Peters, R. 2015. Lessons learned for gun violence prevention. Daily Maverick, 9 March.