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Griffith: T&T gun laws do not go far enough
As the Government battles unbridled gun violence, national security adviser Gary Griffith says guns don’t kill people, people kill people. On Friday, Olympic blade runner Oscar Pistorius appeared before the court in South Africa charged with the murder of his 29-year-old girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp who had been shot four times with Pistorius’ licensed gun.
In South Africa where levels of crime are extremely high, many private citizens have licensed guns. But the incident has raised questions about the need for having guns in homes, and the possible dangers. In T&T last week, Integrity Commission Chairman Ken Gordon, 83, reported to the police on Carnival Monday that he had lost his loaded pistol in Woodbrook. A schoolboy later found it and handed it over to the police.
Griffith supports citizens’ rights to bear arms if they believe guns will protect them, their family or their business from criminal elements and done in accordance with the law. Towfeek Ali, head of the Firearm Training Institute at Chaguanas, said most people just want a gun for a sense of security and hope to never have to use it.
“People tend to want to protect themselves, families and businesses,” he said. “Having a firearm gives a sense of security in that you have a chance to protect yourself against the criminal elements out there.” When the T&T Guardian spoke to licensed firearm users, most were unwilling to discuss the use or purpose of the gun. A Penal businessman who owns a gun said the business community was under siege and the police could offer no protection.
“We have too many armed robberies in this area,” he said. “People are so fed up of reporting it because nothing is done. My first duty is to protect my family and myself and this is why I feel the need to carry a gun.” He admitted that some of his friends who carried licensed weapons could easily purchase the certificate of competence which was needed to renew the licence.
“There is an argument that guns should not be given to bona fide people,” he said, “but the outlaws have guns and guns are available on every street, around every corner. So they have to control the illegal guns and ammunition in this country. “The people who have guns should get proper training so that the weapons do not end up in the hands of criminals,” he added.
Acting Police Commissioner Stephen Williams said for security reasons he could not reveal how many applications were awaiting approval and how many people possessed licences. However, he said permits were being issued to import firearms and ammunition, and that was an asset to licensed gun dealers. Licensed gunsmith and certified gun trainer Barry Kowlessar, who runs the Hollow Point gun shop in Marabella, said only a few people were issued licences each year.
“I know of only two people who got licences,” he said. Ali, a gunsmith, firearms instructor and firearms dealer, said the majority of people who came to train at his John Street indoor shooting range in Montrose were business people, hunters and security officers. Ali’s is the only indoor range apart from the various rifle clubs around the country.
He said after obtaining a provisional licence, training could take, on average, five days, but users must continue to practise at the range to be able to handle a weapon effectively. Most learners train with pistols and revolvers, while security officers and hunters learn to use shotguns. He said it was a lengthy process to obtain a provisional or full licence but getting a gun thereafter was relatively cheap: A revolver costs about $7,500 and a shotgun $8,000, depending on the brand. A box of ammunition can start at $200.
He maintained that only licence-holders could purchase his supplies sold only according to conditions outlined by the Commissioner of Police.
Safeguards on licensed guns
The acting CoP sought to allay fears about gun safety, vowing to uphold stringent standards in issuing firearm users’ licences. He also promised zero tolerance for people who abused their licences, saying the Firearm Act was adjusted in 2004 to deal with negligence. Griffith felt the current regulations did not go far enough and stressed there must be proper checks and balances to ensure that those who have guns were mentally and physically fit to handle them.
He warned: “There is a serious shortfall in that people who acquire gun licences are not subjected to mandatory psychological testing on a regular basis and there is no mandatory training for the use of a firearm.” Griffith said those who were granted provisional licences (PL) and firearm users’ licences (FUL) should undergo annual training to prevent negligent discharge, as well as psychological evaluation to test if they were mentally fit to carry weapons.
“For people with FUL, psychological testing has to be done yearly, because later on, certain elements may have changed in their lifestyle, emotionally, financially or domestic situations. Even in law enforcement, we need to look at the police officers who carry guns and psychological testing and person weapons testing should be mandatory,” he added.
As Griffith explained, both circumstances, whether Pistorius had murdered or accidentally killed his girlfriend, were a prime example of why gun users should have mandatory training. He said tests should also be given to security guards, as a large number of the licences issued are for precepted officers in private security firms.
A former army captain, Griffith explained, “In the Defence Force, annual testing or personal weapons training is mandatory to prevent negligent discharge which is a basic security measure to make sure you don’t fire off a shot that you did not want to. “Negligent discharge is based on a lack of training. You have to be able to load and unload your weapon, and point in the correct direction and this is a mandatory training that can prevent someone from committing a negligent discharge.
Barry Kowlessar said there were many facilities for training, including the Firearm Training Institute, South Trinidad Rifle Association and the Trinidad Rifle Association so users had no excuse for not training. Ali also emphasised the need for safety. “Being able to defend yourself depends on your training. It must be constant and you must have a proper mindset and be prepared at all times.”
The Penal businessman said he trained once each month. But former president of the Penal/Debe Chamber of Industry Lincoln Ragbirsingh said, “The majority of those who get FULs do the training once in their life and they pay to get a certificate of competence when they want to renew.” Ragbirsingh added that the shooting ranges provided opportunity for ample training but only a handful of business people made use of them.
“If a citizen wants a firearm we need to beef up the system. It should not just be a matter of filling out a form—they need to learn the weapon,” he said.
How hard is it to get a gun legally? Getting a gun licence is not that easy. Chairman of the Firearms Appeal Board Israel Khan, SC, says there are over 500 appeals before the board. However, Khan said he was unaware how many were legitimate claims, as the board is yet to meet.
The board was only appointed on October 18 last year, under the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 2011, to arbitrate on decisions by the Commissioner of Police not to issue licences to applicants. The commissioner of police can also revoke a permit if he is satisfied that the holder is of intemperate habits or unsound mind, or otherwise unfit to be entrusted with a gun. Anyone aggrieved by such a decision can appeal to the board—which has not met since 2008.
Khan said it would meet in the next two weeks to begin reviewing the claims. Griffith agreed it was hard to get a legal firearm because of red tape, and said many people complained to him about it. “Most of them have not gotten a response from the Commissioner of Police why they have not gotten a licence. Some people have heard that the service lost their application while others take two to three years before they can obtain a licence.
“The bureaucratic red tape is too much. You can’t have people on file for four to five years—and even though they finally got it, what if something had happened to them during those years? Then the bureaucratic tape would have been responsible for that. We need to get the system done properly.
According to the police Web site, any company, business group or individual 25 or over can apply for a firearm user’s licence. First you must get a provisional licence that authorises you to fire a gun at a specific shooting range for training purposes. Applicants must get a certificate of character from the Commissioner of Police not less than three months before the application date.
The provisional licence expires after two months but applicants can apply for another. Ali said provisional licence-holders must train and take an exam for a certificate of competence. They then go back to the CoP who determines whether to grant a full licence. The permit states what types of gun the holder is permitted to acquire and how much ammunition he can purchase.
What the law says
The Firearms Act says someone may purchase, acquire or have in his possession a firearm or ammunition only if he has a licence for them. Offences and penalties under the law include:
•Selling or giving a gun or ammunition to someone who does not have a licence: $50,000 fine or imprisonment for five years.
•Shooting in or near a public place except in self-defence: $10,000 fine .
•Using a gun while committing a crime: ten years’ imprisonment.
•Having a gun while drunk or under the influence of drugs: $20,000 fine and two years’ imprisonment.
•Anyone convicted under the Domestic Violence Act, may be refused a firearm licence for five years from the date of conviction.
Firearms dealer and trainer Towfeek Ali.
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