The Government has expressed concern about the level of gun ownership and has linked private gun ownership to the high crime rate involving the use of guns. One argument is that gun owners rent their guns to criminals. There are no statistics or other evidence that is publicly available to link lawful gun ownership to the high level of gun crimes. However, by the end of the 1980s, after strong police action against ‘kick down the door bandits,’ criminals increasingly resorted to the use of firearms. Drug trafficking (remember ‘Taps?’) increased. In 1992 the newly elected PPP/C Government increasing use of firearms licences which had been previously denied to business people and farmers.
The increase in the issue of gun licences in 1992 resulted from what was believed to be the discrimination that attended the issue of gun licences during the era of PNC Governments. From 1992 the PPP/C Government sought to redress the balance, particularly to business people and farmers. There is some evidence that this process slowed at some point, perhaps after those who were considered to have been unfairly deprived had been granted licences. For example, the PPP/C Government declined to accede to the requests for firearms by Corentyne fishermen despite the atrocities, including murders, which were committed against them over many years.
The increase in gun crimes has also been linked to the increase in drug trafficking from the 1980s. The use of heavy guns, already in use in crimes, particularly during the crime wave beginning in 2002, increased after the theft of 30 AK47s from the GDF armoury at Camp Ayangana in February 2006. Hand grenades were also introduced as weapons during this period and were used up to recently in the attack on the vehicle of Glen Lall, the published of the Kaieteur News. Neither heavy weapons nor hand grenades are lawfully owned by citizens.
For several years government and security officials have attributed the prevalence of not only illegal guns and gun crimes, but also illegal drugs, to Guyana’s porous borders. The implied argument was that it was impossible to stop the flow of arms across our borders because of the impossibility of monitoring them. This was the explanation, some would say the excuse, for the inability of the authorities to reduce the incidence of gun crimes and drug trafficking.
There are many initiatives which have been taken to reduce crime. These range from increased cooperation between the Governments of Guyana and the US in relation to drug trafficking, cooperation between the Governments of Guyana and the UK on security issues, efforts to build relations between the Police and communities, enhanced capacity of the CID, increased recruitment and training and others. These have resulted in an overall reduction of crime. But the intractable problem of crimes at involving the use of a gun, continues to be deeply troubling to Guyanese in Guyana and overseas.
A few years ago all owners of firearms were required to submit their firearms when renewing licences. The objective was to acquire spent shells by firing the guns in water so that a database could be built of spent shells of all firearms which are legally owned. That database is presumably in existence. If, as the Government argues, private owners are renting their firearms to criminals, how come no one has been charged? This indicates that the evidence against private gun owners is slim or anecdotal.
The government and security officials face a situation that has no single, dominant, cause and requires wide-ranging solutions. These range from secure borders, better policing, granting of gun licences only to those who are fully qualified, reduced drug trafficking, more stringent bail conditions and many more. However, the attempt to unduly restrict the issue of firearm licences runs the risk of returning Guyana to the days when only the politically favoured were granted licences.
There are other issues, already in the public domain, that needs to be addressed. Recently, both the Commissioner of Police and the Minister of Public Security called for bail to be refused to persons accused of gun crimes because while they are on bail they commit more gun crimes. This has been a sore point for decades and the only answer is legislation.
The extent of the power of magistrates to imprison persons convicted before them of gun crimes, or any indictable offence tried summarily, is limited. A simple amendment to the relevant law will enable a magistrate to refer such persons to be sentenced by the High Court as if the person were convicted on indictment, if the magistrate considers it necessary either on his or her motion or at the request of the prosecution. The High Court has greater powers.
The other option that ought to be considered is the continuation of the system of jury trials. I have already published two articles about this and pointed out the large number of countries that have abolished, or partially abolished jury trials, including India and South Africa and has been raised by the Chief Justice in Trinidad. Guyana must place this matter on the agenda.