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By Peter Apps

JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - Tighter gun ownership laws are pushing South Africans to buy crossbows, spears, swords, knives and pepper sprays to protect themselves from violent crime.

"We've had to build an entirely new shop because the demand from people is so great," Justin Willmers, owner of Durban Guns and Ammo, told Reuters. "It can be anything from a Zulu fighting spear, battle axes, swords, crossbows."

New gun controls came into force last year under South Africa's Firearms Control Act, but some weapons shop owners say high crime rates are pushing law abiding citizens to look for alternative means of defending themselves.

Despite official figures showing the murder rate falling 10 percent in the year to March 2004, South Africa's Arms and Ammunition Dealers Association says individuals face a one in 60 chance of being the victim of a violent crime in any given year.

Many houses are surrounded by razor wire and electric fences, but with police turning down 80 percent of firearms license requests after an 18-month application process, Association spokesman Alex Holmes said people were forced to look at other options.

"It's not really a matter of choice," Holmes said. "Licensed firearms are not used in crime at any great rate."

Estimates of the number of illegal firearms in South Africa vary between 1 and 4 million, he said, but the real problem is from some 30-40,000 hardcore criminals using a small number of illegal guns.


South Africa began a firearms amnesty on Jan. 1 that to date has netted some 13,000 weapons, officials told Reuters, but critics say most of the weapons handed in are old and would never have been used for crime.

"It's mostly been grannies and grandpas that are handing in weapons that are probably unusable anyhow," Willmers said. In the meantime, people from all walks of life are acquiring weapons not restricted by law.

"The guys have just had enough," Willmers said.

Men are buying machetes to fight off hijackers or crossbows to shoot people breaking into their property, while women are more likely to buy a pepper spray, he said.

One customer successfully fought off three hijackers with a machete, slashing one, he said. A beggar had bought a pepper spray so he could fight off those who tried to steal his shoes as he slept on the street.

With some homeowners worried about prosecution if they kill intruders, the crossbow is particularly popular because of its silence and the difficulty of tracing the firer from forensic evidence, he said.

With no legal restrictions on sales, weapons shop staff had to exercise judgment in who they sold to, Willmers said.

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