Thursday, February 22, 2018

Gun control is the key


Mark Fraser

In the 7,000 days since Michael “Mike” Hercules was gunned down, over 4,500 others were murdered. That’s two killings, every three days, for 20 years. To stop them, the PM and AG now offer the Miscellaneous (Defence and Police Complaints) Bill, 2013. They wish to follow Jamaica, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda, but provide no comparative data. That is not surprising. This amendment has its purpose, but experience shows that reducing crime is not one.

On that night in mid-August 1993, we were horrified by Mike’s murder in circumstances which are now normal. Our Commissioner of Prisons at the time, when Mike was attacked for his car while dropping bread off to a charity, he killed one; the other still waits on death row. Around Mike’s murder, it was coincidental that convicted killers Michael Bullock and Irvine Phillip were scheduled to hang. At Mike’s funeral procession, signs read “Hang Them High”. They were never.

Since then, illegal firearms were used in most killings, and many involved young men, like Mike’s killers. Numerous resources have been devoted to studying these senseless killings, the proliferation of illegal firearms, and the extensive work needed to reduce both of them. Still, in Jamaica, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda, like Trinidad and Tobago, crime and the public perception of insecurity continues to increase, not decline.

In 1994, Jamaica authorised its PM to use the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) for the purpose of maintaining and securing public safety and public order. 16-years later, the potency of desperate politicians and military might went on display, as joint police-JDF operations were used to capture and extradite reputed drug lord Christopher “Dudus” Coke. In a piece titled, “The massacre in Jamaica”, The New Yorker noted that in pursuit of Dudus, no fewer than 74 people were killed.

After the 1994 amendment to its Defence Act, Jamaica’s murder rate actually more than doubled, from 24 per 100,000 to over 59 per 100,000 in 2007. 16-years after the amendment, homicides finally declined in 2010 and 2011, on the basis of improved police operations.

Antigua and Barbuda hit its highest number of murders one year after the 2007 legislative amendment. An Antigua Observer report in January 2013 pointed to widespread perception that criminal activity was on the rise in 2012. And, in February 2013, just as our debate on this amendment was heating up, Antigua and Barbuda’s PM Baldwin Spencer said in the wake of another murder, “we have over the past few years been invaded by events of crime and violence that are alien to this part of the world. Over the past few months, we have seen a shocking and callous wave of crime and violence involving the use of illegal firearms”. PM Spencer suggested as a solution that “all the necessary legal processes needed to give effect to the death penalty, which is still part of the Laws of Antigua and Barbuda, will be utilised.” Like Trinidad and Tobago after the Hercules and other murders, the death penalty is always a factor, but never a feature.

In Guyana, the Guyana Defence Force (GDF) has a controversial history, with serious allegations of crime and election fraud. But, a policing role for the GDF is not something the current Commodore of the GDF Gary Best supports. Like former Partnership Minister of National Security John Sandy, Commodore Best believes that soldiers do not have a policing function, but a supporting role that, “requires them only to provide a safe environment in which the police are to carry out their functions”.

A current UK travel advisory on Guyana warns that “crime levels are high and police capacity is low. There are regular armed and violent robberies against businesses and individuals. There is a risk of passers-by being caught up in such incidents—the Police tend to respond with firearms if shot at or threatened. There were 512 robberies under arms during the period January to October 2012 (a 15 per cent increase from 2011). And in the same period 114 murders took place (in a country with a population of just over 750,000).”

Experience from Jamaica, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda does not suggest a correlation between this amendment and crime reduction. The Partnership’s next justification is as unsustainable. There’s value in the argument that the law on joint defence force-police operations needs to be unambiguous, but sunset legislation does not provide a permanent solution for what the Government sees as an ongoing concern. Having made the case for clearer powers and immunities, there’s no reason why the legislative changes should die in 2015.

If the Partnership honestly believes that this amendment is needed in 2013, then it can be sure that the amendment will still be needed in 2015. The Partnership has shown that joint operations have been used since the 1970s‘ when crime was much lower, so why would they not be required after 2015? The PM says, “We believe that giving soldiers the powers, privileges, immunities as are given by law to members of the police service and others can potentially have a positive impact on the reduction of crime”. Does she also believe that in 2015, by some magic, the military will no longer require these powers, privileges, immunities?

There is no doubt that the Partnership Government is at its wits end in the fight against crime. It made the biggest dent in the murder rate during the State of Emergency, but its use of emergency powers failed miserably against perceived gang members. Jamaica, Guyana, and Antigua and Barbuda are no better off than this country, and while the current amendment may be a nice to have, it is no need to have. The public requires something more and soon. Twenty years since two youths felled our beloved Mike Hercules, senselessness still characterises most killings. To counter the trend, we could do without senselessness from our politicians.

(Happy birthday to my sister Beverley)

* Clarence Rambharat is a lawyer and university lecturer