On the last day of 2019, gunmen from rival gangs embarked on a deadly gun battle in the streets of Port-of-Spain. It broke out shortly before 3 pm and scores of bystanders were caught in the deadly crossfire. Among them was 53-year old Lystra Hernandez-Patterson whose plans to ring in the new year at home with her family ended abruptly when she was killed as she sat in a maxi taxi at the corner of Prince and George Streets.
The running gun battle ended near the Central Market where three of the gunmen were killed.
Police Commissioner Gary Griffith said the gunmen were armed with AR 15 machine guns–high powered, military-grade weapons which have been the subject, since late last year, of acrimonious debate over provisions in the Bail (Amendment) (No 2) Bill 2019.
The commissioner cited that incident as the most compelling reason why the amended legislation, which denies bail to persons charged with possession with high powered weapons, should be quickly passed and enacted.
Mr Griffith was particularly concerned about the ease with which the shooters secure bail and return to the streets to commit more gun violence. He highlighted how this gaping loophole in the law defeated the best efforts of the T&T Police Service (TTPS) to reduce the high murder rate.
Ironically, his impassioned appeals for support of the legislation have been ignored by members of the political party to which he was once closely aligned. Recently, every member of the UNC in the House of Representative abstained from voting on the bill which required a three-fifths majority.
Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar said she is concerned that the legislation could be used as a weapon by the ruling PNM, particularly with a general election just months away and she warned that it “militates against the poor, and what is needed is bail reform, not more draconian bail legislation.”
This statement alone puts a political spin on a matter that should be solely about the safety and security of citizens.
Then came further spin from Attorney General Faris Al-Rawi, who called on citizens to indicate their displeasure at the defeat of the bill.
Neither position properly serves the interest of the public. A way must be found, legislatively and otherwise, to quickly rein in any means by which criminals continue their deadly rampage across T&T with highly sophisticated lethal weapons.
This country deserves a solid, airtight law that cannot be exploited by gangsters and murderers. That requires a bipartisan effort.
We, therefore, call on honourable members on both sides of the parliamentary chamber to put aside politics long enough to pass a version of this legislation that will have the effect of making T&T much safer than it is now.
Somewhere between what the UNC views as draconian and what the PNM defends as necessary are the elements of the law that this country urgently needs. To achieve it political bias must be set aside.
It is the most important legislative step of the many that must be taken to stop murderers who have easy access to illegal deadly weapons smuggled through the country’s porous border.
Do it to honour the memory of Lystra Hernandez-Patterson and all the others who have suffered violent and untimely deaths at the hands of criminals with military-grade weapons