Editorial comment: Firearms amnesty can also generate legal changes

The amnesty for unlicensed firearms declared last week and running to the end of next month was a much-needed and very welcome move to collect a lot of dubious weapons from people who are at least potentially honest, and in many cases were having to cope with negligence of others.

Obviously robbers and similar criminals are not going to be lining up to hand in their firearms. But at the very least those who for all sorts of reasons have firearms in their possession that were never registered, or whose licences have expired, or where proper transfer was not effected when a relative died and for many other reasons can now get rid of these without any criminal charges.

And people are coming forward, slipping into police stations with their bag, and going through a fairly simple process to hand in the weapons. The police do need to know an outline of the circumstances that led to an unlicensed weapon coming into someone’s possession, so the amnesty is more than just walking into a station and dumping a gun on the charge office desk and walking out.

But they are following the guidelines they have been given and relying fairly heavily on affidavits for many facts, with help offered to the people coming in with the firearms to go through the minimal paperwork. It is helpful, for example, to have the expired licence if there is one, and even the death certificate of the licensed owner if the lack of licence results from someone going through the possessions of a dead relative.

The amnesty produced only a trickle of firearms in the first week but now that the police are publicising the ease of the amnesty rules, there is likely to be a lot more activity and lot more unneeded and unwanted weapons coming into the stations. 

One useful result of the amnesty will probably be to give the police some fairly good data on how weapons that should be licensed became unlicensed and this could be translated into the firearms regulations, tightening up some sections and granting a bit of leeway in other sections to ensure that all firearms are registered and that the authorities know who has them and where they are kept.

As the police suspected when the amnesty was announced, a lot of the unregistered and “floating” firearms were acquired years ago and the holder gave up shooting as a sport, or the company that had the original licence changed hands, or someone died and the relatives did not know what to do with the gun left behind.

Among the changes probably required some are administrative. It would make sense in the third decade of the 21st century if the firearms registry was on a database easily accessible by all authorised police officers and officials. 

This could be done over three years, the timespan of almost all licences, as new licences and renewals were processed.

That could be backed by the simple software, easy for some hotshot Zimbabwean IT expert to write, to flip up the names of those whose licences have expired, and those could be followed up. 

Taking a leaf out of the Zinara rules, there could be a modest fixed penalty for the first month or two when a licensed firearm holder rushes in to go through the renewal process, since people do forget, and then after that a decision as to whether the renewal should be automatically blocked as the person was simply irresponsible. 

Fairly recently the police announced that those clearing up after a relative’s death should hand in any weapons left among the effects, while decisions were made over relicencing and transfer. This needs to be far better known and perhaps needs two sorts of licence for the heirs. One would be the normal transfer and the licensing of the relative taking over the gun; the other would be a permit just allowing the relative to have the firearm sold through an approved dealer. Firearms dealers are very careful to obey the law and will not buy a weapon that is unlicensed or one where the licence has expired.

There also needs to be some sort of system to cope with the fairly frequent problem that the licensed holder of the firearm did not keep the licence up to date while alive and the relatives then face the fear that they will be blamed. A new regulation that allows the executor or heirs of an estate a few months to hand over the dubious weapon, along with a copy of the death certificate or burial order, would sort that out. Sometimes we need to let the dead bury the dead and not blame the living.

At the same time, looking at the sort of police and court reports we receive, there is need to upgrade the licence holders themselves. We hear of firearms being stolen, and obviously that is how violent criminals obtain most of their weapons. 

Often the firearm was inadequately secured and recently we saw one licensed holder reporting the theft and then charged with not taking care of the gun. The magistrate, sensibly, gave the option of a fine but that owner and his friends are not going to leave firearms lying around again.

This security consciousness is needed since violent criminals find it almost impossible to buy a legal weapon and can only buy those that have been stolen. If far fewer firearms are stolen, and the amnesty is partly designed to get those in inexpert hands out of circulation, then we will have fewer armed robberies.

The police are also concerned that some licensed holders carry their weapons around when this is not necessary and even wave them around. 

We do not let drivers loose on the roads until someone has certified they are reasonably safe behind the wheel, and it seems that we need to extend this to firearms owners. It would be relatively simple to have courses for those wanting to buy a firearm before they are allowed to apply, emphasising safety, sensible use and safe keeping.

Suitable gun clubs could easily be licensed to do this, and even teach the would-be gun owner how to shoot properly so they do not endanger others, and many clubs would probably welcome the extra source of modest income to help them with what is not a cheap sport. 

So the amnesty should provide a lot of data, as well as bring into police custody a pile of weapons that no one wants or needs. 

That data, plus an examination of the sort of firearms law breaches the police have to deal with, should then be translated into the firearms law, modest relaxation for something like opening small permanent amnesty windows for what seem unintended breaches of the law, but tightening up other areas to make breaches far less damaging.

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