This past week Jamaica welcomed the Firearms Act of 2022 and as if its passage provides a panacea for the crime scourge wracking the island, in particular the unrelenting trail of murders which had up to the day of its passage accounted for the loss of life of 1,300 Jamaicans, Police Commissioner Antony Anderson was expressing some early optimism. This on the heels of the recently published RJR/Jamaica Gleaner commissioned Don Anderson polls which suggested that more than 85 per cent of Jamaicans had very little confidence in the abilities of either security minister, Dr Horace Chang, nor the Police Commissioner to arrest the nation’s crime slide. The fact is that any assessment of the island’s murder statistics will reveal that the lion’s share of these murders was, reportedly, committed with (illegal) firearms. The task, therefore, was to attack the problem from the angle of targeting the suppliers of illegal firearms and ammunition which, in my opinion, is a humongous business in Jamaica.
Gun smuggling is corruption’s close companion
It has already been established by the security forces that more than seventy per cent of the illegal firearms and ammunition that enters the island, does so through the ports of Montego Bay and Kingston. Central to the illegal passage of these firearms and ammunition into the island, though, is an even more gargantuan monster – corruption. If we are to be honest with ourselves, no average Jamaican can illegally spirit caches of arms and ammunition through any of Jamaica’s ports without inside help. This means being assisted by individual(s) within the island’s customs and border protection framework. This is a multi-level, multi-channel operation and under these circumstances Commissioner Anderson’s statement that “for those people in the illegal gun trade, whether you possess it, traffic it, transport it, bring it into the country or whatever you do with it, you will be facing sentences of 15 years and upwards”, would give greater comfort but for the astronomically high levels of corruption in Jamaica. In the circumstances, I am wondering if we should hold our collective breath.
Sentencing is the pillar of the Firearm Act
The sentencing provisions of the 2022 Firearms Act does provide the kind of guidelines that could become an excellent first level of deterrence as most criminals fear their removal from the society almost as much as they fear death. Under the circumstances, I can certainly appreciate the Commissioner’s view that “this closes the once revolving door for persons previously charged for firearms offences who are taken into custody, charged for illegal guns, pays their fine, given their one-year sentence and are back out doing the same things that they were doing before”. The new legislation now provides that where an individual is convicted of possession of illegal firearms or ammunition in a circuit court they face the possibility of life imprisonment, while people convicted of possession of firearms or ammunition with intent to injure or cause serious damage will face a term of imprisonment for not less than 15 years or more than 25 years. I am wondering if I am mistaken that this bears striking resemblance to sections of the ill-fated Gun Court Act of 1974 which established the gun court for which much of its rulings were subsequently overturned by the UK Privy Council between 1975 and 1983.
Amnesty and removing the guns
In immediate support to the new Firearms Act is the proposed Amnesty which will run for two weeks beginning on 5 November 2022. The terms of the proposed amnesty are aimed at individuals who, for varying reasons, find themselves in possession of an unlicenced firearm and provide those individuals with a 14-day window through which to either regularize the ownership of or to remove the said firearms from the streets. I am quite curious as to the level of success that may be realized. But, against the background of more than 518 firearms removed from the streets up to 31 August 2022 by the security forces in addition to the 9,082 rounds of ammunition seized during the same period, it would be a good win if the response was positive. Optimism, though desirable, is an unrealistic anachronism in Jamaica where the trade and trafficking in illegal guns and ammunition is a multi-billion-dollar business and a support pilon of Jamaica’s biggest business – crime.
The commissioner contends that since January of this year, the police have laid charges against 657 persons just for illegal possession of firearms. On its own the number may appear small but when one considers that this is .023 per cent of our population, it provides very little comfort as to the possible magnitude of our problem. There are an awful lot of people out there that are in possession of illegal firearms and for the sake of the rest of us, I hope this Firearms Act gets the ball rolling.