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Who should get firearms?

Trinidad and Tobago seems set to engage in a debate on legal gun ownership rights and responsibilities, just when the matter is being urgently agitated in the United States. Over there, the debate hinges on a constitutional right to bear arms, for which no parallel exists in the Trinidad and Tobago Constitution. Still, it appears from High Court rulings here that the failure to appoint the Firearms Appeal Board until this week reflected both an infringement of citizens' rights and maladministration.

This lacuna occurred during a period when gun-related robberies and murders ramped up to unprecedented heights. Anyone who wants to commit a crime apparently has easy access to guns, and can even rent these weapons to carry out specific "jobs". Indeed, in April last year, then National security minister John Sandy admitted that police- and military-issued firearms went missing with alarming frequency and that these weapons may have been handed out to criminals for a fee. Apart from that, it is clear that guns are illegally imported through Trinidad and Tobago's porous borders with no problem whatsoever.

In that context, the calls from citizens, particularly business persons, to be given personal firearms have understandably grown. Chairman of the Firearms Board, Israel Khan, has guesstimated that there are hundreds or thousands of pending appeals from applicants denied firearms by the Commissioner of Police. But this clamour for citizens' presumptive means to defend themselves and their property will only rise so long as guns, including startlingly high-powered ones, proliferate illegally. Until more measurable progress is made in eliminating the sources and the possessors of illegal firearms, pressure will be heavy on the Firearms Board to make guns available to law-abiding citizens now demanding them, almost in the American way, as a right.

Whether the board starts granting more appeals, however, should be a policy matter discussed at Cabinet level, rather than left to the three-man board or even the Police Commissioner. There are two basic outcomes to be considered: one, either that more permits for concealed weapons would make criminals more cautious about committing robberies and murder and hence reduce crime; or, two, that more guns would lead to more killings, in cases of domestic disputes and by robbers assuming that their victims are armed and taking hasty pre-emptive action.

The policy question, then, is what consequence is more probable? That, in turn, hinges on the culture of the society – i.e. would law-abiding citizens, given a deadly weapon, be more likely to be responsible or to abuse the privilege? Would they get professional training in shooting and ensure that the weapon is securely stored when not in use?

How the policy-makers answer those questions will determine their directives to the CoP and the Firearms Board.

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