Weapons bill problematic: collectors, clubs

Exemptions should apply to people using weapons and firearm replicas for recreational purposes under the Dangerous Weapons Bill, Parliament's Police Committee heard on Tuesday.

Briefing MPs, the Gauteng Airsoft Club said it was concerned its members' activities would be hampered if the legislation was not tweaked.

Airsoft gun shooting is a sport where participants eliminate their opponents with non-metallic spherical balls, which are not able to pierce the skin.

The club's Andre du Plessis said the bill was a good step to ensure safety in South Africa's communities.

"The problem for us is that an airsoft player, on his way to or from a game, could be in contravention of the law simply by having an airsoft gun in his or her possession," said Du Plessis.

He said the police should do more than just a "superficial examination" of potential weapons in such instances.

Officers should inspect the device, remove the magazine and be able to distinguish between real bullets and airsoft pellets.

"I don't want to travel back from a game, having a device in my vehicle, and police saying 'it is a dangerous thing, we'll arrest you'," Du Plessis said.

MPs said it was not Parliament's intention to prevent law-abiding citizens from practising their sport.

"To date, you've had no problems with being stopped because you have plastic guns and I don't think this bill has any intention of stopping that possibility," Democratic Alliance MP Dianne Kohler-Barnard said.

However, the committee's acting chairwoman, Annelize van Wyk, warned that people in possession of airsoft guns or similar devices should not expect special treatment.

"These weapons are being abused. We cannot deny that and that's where legislation comes in when even your members are abusing those firearms," she said.

Van Wyk said the committee would not legislate against law-abiding citizens.

"If you're travelling at night with camouflage, with an airsoft gun, with all due respect I would like the police to stop you.

"I would want police to make sure where you are going, what you have with you and if that's a discomfort at the time, that's the price you pay for the sport you are practising," she said.

The National Arms and Ammunition Collectors' Confederation of SA (NAACCSA), which represents over 2000 collectors in the country, said it was equally concerned about the bill.

NAACCSA chairman Carvel Webb said the wording of the bill should be made more understandable so it was understood by both citizens and officers.

Webb said the section of the bill which dealt with officers being given the discretion to arrest people -- where there was a "reasonable suspicion" they intended using a weapon, firearm replica or imitation firearm for unlawful purposes -- should be narrowed.

"The policeman must just stop for a minute and be able to say with reasonable certainty that this person was up to no good and not just to say I don't like this and you are going to spend the weekend in jail," he said.

Public hearings about the bill continue next week. It was officially brought before Parliament last week.

It seeks to empower police officers to arrest people carrying dangerous weapons during, among others, public gatherings.

At the time, Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa said the proposed law would outlaw the possession of any weapon, object, or replica in instances where there was an intention to use it for an unlawful purpose.

In terms of the bill, objects such as bricks and glass bottles would be considered weapons, as they could injure people or cause damage to property.

Mthethwa would be empowered to regulate what dangerous weapons could be carried in public.

"This is particularly important given the developments in the country, and the apparent brandishing of weapons in public protests and public gatherings, as it were," Mthethwa told MPs.