Any professional hunter will tell you that the first rule of the game is rifle safety. Before you even think of touching a rifle certain unwritten rules should be stated:
- All weapons should be presumed armed and ready to fire.
- Every calibre weapon is lethal.
- Alcohol and shooting are never to be mixed.
- If it is your rifle, it is your responsibility.
In South Africa the use and possession of a firearm is regulated by the Firearms Control Act (FCA). The FCA sets out the detail for the owning and safe use of a firearm. One of the most important provisions of the FCA is the requirement that every person wishing to own a firearm, must obtain a competency certificate. The benefit of such a competency certificate is that extensive training must be provided to an individual on rifle safety and the correct and prohibited use of a firearm. In theory, every person that received such training should be well versed in rifle safety. Unfortunately this is not always the case, and in the heat of the moment, rifle safety is often the first thing that goes out the window, leading to serious accidents.
Even worse is a scenario where someone, for instance a child, obtains access to a person’s weapon and accidentally shoots himself or an innocent bystander. The question then arises as to who is accountable?
The FCA provides that if a weapon that is owned by you, is not on your person, it must be locked away in a safe. Such a safe must be under the sole supervision and control of the gun owner. The safe must also adhere to certain specifications and SABS standards. A person who holds a licence to possess a firearm or is a holder of a competency certificate, may safeguard another person’s weapon, provided he has the written permission of the owner to do so, and subject to the authorisation of a designated firearms officer.
Our Courts have also ruled on the subject of the negligent discharging of a firearm by an unauthorised person, holding that under all circumstances the burden is placed on the owner of the weapon to ensure that it is placed out of reach of any person who could possibly use the weapon negligently and unsupervised. If the owner of the weapon fails to prevent an accident, even though such accident was not foreseeable but preventable, the owner can be held accountable civilly and criminally.
The owning of a firearm and ammunition thus places a heavy burden on the shoulders of the gun owner, a burden that goes well beyond the joys that accompany the annual hunt.
Rifle and hunting accidents however can happen to even the most careful and experienced firearm owner. The minimisation of the risk of such accidents is accordingly of the utmost importance. The following rules can assist in preventing unfortunate accidents:
- Regularly refresh your rifle safety procedures.
- Always keep your weapons unloaded, wherever they are stored.
- Always keep firearms in an approved safe under your direct supervision.
- Always keep the safe keys away from unauthorised users.
- If a weapon is out of your safe, treat it as loaded and lethal.
- Never point a weapon at any target unless you have the intent of firing the weapon.
If you are unsure of your current rifle safety procedures, make contact with a weapons specialist or attorney knowledgeable on the FCA that can advise you on your situation. And remember, better safe than sorry is always the best policy and with rifles, this can be extended to “better in a safe than sorry”.