/ 4 September 2023

Shooting blanks a popular choice for gangsters

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A Cape Town Metro officer conducts a police search operation in Hanover Park, Cape Town. File photo by MARCO LONGARI/AFP via Getty Images

An uptick in the use of imitation firearms and blank-firing guns has heightened the need to re-evaluate existing legislation in order to strike a balance between effective enforcement strategies and the law. 

Sources in the South African Police Service (SAPS) told the Mail & Guardian there was an “urgency” within the service to amend existing laws to allow for the successful arrest and prosecution of those using imitation and blank-firing guns.

SAPS did not respond to the M&G’s official enquiries on the issue.

An imitation firearm, according to the Firearms Control Act, refers to anything that has the appearance of a firearm but is not capable of operating as such, and cannot be easily identified as an imitation. 

Blank guns are replicas of well-known firearms such as the Beretta or its South African licensed copy, Z88, which is a standard military service pistol. The barrels of blank guns are blocked and have no projectile but make a noise similar to actual firearms. In contrast to the imitation firearm, a blank gun can be modified or “altered” into an actual firearm. 

According to data provided by the City of Cape Town, there has been a notable rise in the seizure of imitation firearms over the past two years. 

In October 2021, the city said it had recovered 50 firearms since July and “even more imitation and zip guns”.  

Between July 2021 and June this year, Cape Town’s agencies for traffic control, metro policing and law enforcement recovered more than 430 imitation firearms.

Data released by the city’s metro police department in January showed the recovery of imitation firearms has not only increased, but surpassed that of actual firearms. This was reiterated by a senior researcher at Dullah Omar Institute, Jean Redpath, during a recent webinar on crime statistics.

Redpath noted an upward trend in the recovery of imitation firearms by the city’s enforcement services, including officers attached to the Law Enforcement Advancement Plan (Leap).

Redpath told the M&G that a high number of firearms were initially confiscated when Leap officers were deployed to high murder rate areas in 2020.

“More recently, the data that we get is showing more imitation firearms [are confiscated],” said Redpath, adding: “That could mean that the real thing is not as available as before [or] they figured out that it’s just as effective [as real firearms]”.

Criminals have capitalised on the strong visual resemblance that imitations bear to firearms, and find the former more accessible and effective.

“These weapons are easier to access and, given their design, one can’t fault anyone for thinking it is a real firearm,” Cape Town mayoral committee member for safety and security JP Smith told the M&G, adding that the increase in the use of imitation firearms “is not surprising”.  

Smith said a possible explanation was that “the continued confiscation of illegal firearms … has led to criminals struggling to obtain access to illegal firearms and resorting to making their own zip guns or using imitation firearms”.

In the latest quarterly crime statistics, police in the Western Cape confiscated 4.5% more illegal firearms compared with the same period last year. Between April and June, police recovered 669 firearms, compared to last year’s total 640 seizures. 

A source working closely with metro police told the M&G on condition of anonymity that imitation firearms are most prevalent during robberies and hijackings. “You cannot see the difference between an imitation and [the] real deal”.

The growing prevalence of blank-firing guns has added another layer of complexity for law enforcement agencies to grapple with. These licence-free blank pistols, also known as 9mm PAK (automatic blank pistol) guns, are not recognised under the Firearms Control Act and can be easily modified to discharge live ammunition. 

“It makes the song of a real gun but it does not shoot like the real thing,” a former gangster told the M&G on condition of anonymity. 

The former member of one of the three prison numbers gangs, known as 26s, 27s and 28s, stays in a Western Cape area considered a red zone for gang activity. 

While blank-firing guns have been circulating for many years, it is only now that they have become “popular,” according to the former gang member. 

“It’s a custom nowadays. They don’t sign out real firearms to any gang member. You have that man with the heart to commit the deed, to shoot someone to kill.” 

The former member attributed the popularity of a blank-firing gun to its affordability and accessibility. 

Blank-firing guns are “very easy” to obtain and can cost between R2 000 and R3 000, a fraction of an unlicensed firearm that could easily reach a price tag of R20 000 to R30 000.

Marketed as a defence weapon with no licence or legal paperwork required, blank guns are readily available to anyone; from the corner store, major retail franchises across the country to online platforms where you can have the blank gun delivered to your front porch for under R2 000. 

The starting price of a basic licensed firearm is around R11 000. 

An expert in the police’s firearms division expressed concern about how easy it is to modify a blank-firing gun so that it can shoot ammunition. 

The officer added that the chances of connecting such a handmade gun with ballistic evidence in a criminal matter is slim.   

Aside from requiring no licence to operate and its low price tag, another reason why blank-firing guns are appealing to criminals is that the definition of firearms in the Firearms Control Act does not include such weapons, the officer explained.

A directive dated 16 September 2022 and issued by the Directorate of Public Prosecutions (DPP) in the Western Cape summarises a meeting between prosecutors and members of SAPS’ legal services and the ballistics unit to discuss the prosecution of blank-firing firearms in the province. 

According to the directive, which the M&G has seen, police in the Western Cape maintained that blank firearms are illegal, while their national counterparts held a contrasting view, creating uncertainty around the enforcement of the law. 

The province’s ballistic unit argues that unmodified and modified blank firearms which have a projectile should be considered illegal under the Act.

“(Ballistics) advised that it is easy to modify these blank firearms to enable them to shoot 9mm live ammunition. 

“The ballistics unit has concluded that the blank firearms can be defined as a firearm in terms of the Firearms Control Act No 60 of 2000. All their reports will make this plain in future,” reads the directive. 

“In respect of modified blank firearms, there is consensus that these are illegal and fall within the ambit of the Act. We have no difficulty with this category of offences. 

“Similarly, where offences are committed by accused persons who use these blank firearms, the existing legal framework applies, and they can be prosecuted.”

However, SAPS’ national legal services division holds a different view that unmodified blank firearms are legal. 

The challenge remains in respect of people arrested for possessing an unmodified blank firearm who have not committed any other offence. 

The DPP said it would present a memorandum to the national office to “champion a uniform approach within SAPS and the NPA (National Prosecuting Authority)”. 

Eric Ntabazalila, the Western Cape spokesperson for the NPA, confirmed to the M&G this week that a memorandum had been submitted to its national office. 

Claire Taylor, a researcher at Gun Free South Africa, told the M&G that the draft amendment to the Firearms Control Act — which was opened for public comment in May 2021 — does not “specifically address the exemption of imitation firearms” or that of blank-firing guns.

But Taylor added: “It is an opportunity to close this and other gaps that contribute to South Africa’s spiralling gun violence epidemic in which 31 people are shot and killed every day.”