A note on sentencing practices for the offence of the unlawful possession of semi-automatic firearms
Du Toit, Pieter G.
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Violent crimes in South Africa are often accompanied by the possession or use of semi-automatic firearms. The Criminal Law Amendment Act 105 of 1997 (the CLA) provides for the imposition of minimum sentences for certain firearms-related offences. The question whether the minimum sentencing regime actually applies to the offence of the unlawful possession of a semi-automatic firearm has led to a number of conflicting judicial decisions by different High Courts. This note discusses the statutory interpretation challenges the courts had to grapple with regarding the interplay between the CLA and South Africa's successive pieces of firearms legislation. The Supreme Court of Appeal ultimately found that the offence of the unlawful possession of a semi-automatic firearm must indeed be met with the prescribed minimum sentence. The recent sentencing practices of South African courts in respect of the unlawful possession of semi-automatic firearms within the framework of the CLA are analysed. From the investigation it is evident that courts are more likely to impose the minimum sentence in cases where the accused is also convicted of other serious offences such as murder and robbery. In such cases little attention is given to the firearm-related offences as the courts are more concerned with the cumulative effect of the sentences imposed on different counts. In cases where the accused is convicted of the stand-alone offence of the unlawful possession of a semiautomatic firearm, the courts are nevertheless taking an increasingly unsympathetic stance towards offenders, and terms of imprisonment in the range of 7 to 10 years are commonly imposed. In addition to the accused's personal circumstances, one of the most important factors in deciding on an appropriate sentence is the explanation of how the unlawful possession came about. It seems that the judicial sentiment increasingly does not support the view that the possession of an unlicensed firearm should be treated as serious only if the weapon has been used for the commission of a serious crime.
- PER: 2020 Volume 23