The conviction of Corporal Gino Peck on ammunition possession charges in the Magistrate’s Court last week has intensified public debate on the draconian gun laws that some attorneys suspect are unconstitutional. The Opposition People’s United Party (PUP) presented their version of amendments to the gun laws today, Thursday, at a press briefing at their Independence Hall headquarters.
The PUP says its approach to the gun laws reflects a bipartisan spirit, a sentiment that the Leader of the Opposition trumpeted during his speech at Wednesday’s House of Representatives meeting. Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca, who was flanked at the head table by the party’s legal advisors, attorney Anthony Sylvestre and attorney Kareem Musa, who is also the communications director of the Eastern Caucus, told the media that the PUP views the issue of amendment to the Firearms Act and the Criminal Justice Act as one of national importance.
“We believe it should be addressed urgently,” Fonseca said.
Fonseca said he was glad when the Minister of National Security signaled the government’s support for reviewing and revising the laws, and that he had met with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Solicitor General to advance that agenda of revising the laws.
Kareem Musa said that the Firearms Act is regarded by many, if not all attorneys, as being unconstitutional. “It is an issue that has been on the front burner for some weeks now and it appears to have reached a boiling point,” Musa explained.
Musa added that he was surprised when the issue was raised by the Leader of the Opposition, and went on to note that “the fact that it was not raised by the government side sends a very clear signal that this is not a matter of high priority for the UDP government.”
Musa said we cannot expect a distracted Prime Minister who has in-house issues and whose main focus is to hang onto power, to be focused on the real issues affecting our Belizean people today.
The UDP government is finally coming to the realization that after six long years of an oppressive gun law, it is now time to revise those laws, Musa emphasized.
“But we are not here today to fight with the government, we just want them to be real with the people,” said Musa. He went on to add, “We are here today to introduce what we consider to be just and proper amendments to the relevant firearms legislation, in relation to the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act, which is the law that affects a citizen’s right to bail.”
Musa said that some firearms offences are very serious, and indeed are very prevalent offences. We are also cognizant of the fact that many innocent citizens are being punished and treated like criminals, and that has to end, he also stated.
The PUP is proposing that under the Firearms Act bail is not granted for (1) robbery with a firearm, (2) aggravated assault with a firearm (3) possession of unlicensed firearm and ammunition. The restriction of the granting of bail should be limited to those three categories of prevalent offences, the party maintains.
These were already in the Firearms Act in 2003, but the later amendments just threw everything else in the act, said Musa. He said that was very irresponsible of our legislators.
The PUP also proposes to do away with the sub-section 2-1 of the Firearms Act which says that bail is to be denied for all offences under the Firearms Act.
“We are saying repeal that section completely,” Musa stressed.
The PUP additionally wants a proviso to be included in their amendment that would allow magistrates to grant bail under special, extenuating circumstances in writing.
“We must trust that our magistrates, like our Supreme Court judges, have the wisdom and the knowledge to know who deserves to be granted bail,” Musa declared, “pregnant women, high school students and people with no previous criminal [record] ought not to be treated like common criminals the way they are today.”
Anthony Sylvestre addressed the other parts of the PUP proposed amendments. Sylvestre said that upon coming into office the UDP government introduced an amendment to the Firearms Act that cast a wide net. You do not have to be present when the police find ammunition or guns; by virtue of living at a particular house, where illegal guns or ammunition is found, a person is deemed to be in possession of that ammunition or that firearm; the law also puts an onus on that person to prove that he did not have any knowledge of that firearm or ammunition, he said.
Citing a recent Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) ruling, Sylvestre said that the learned judges have equated this kind of law with the notion of guilt by association.
“In other words, the legislators have sought to make ordinary people, who would otherwise be innocent, be ordinary criminals, by virtue of where they live, work or in a vehicle that they may be travelling at the time,” explained Sylvestre.
Sylvestre added that the CCJ has ruled that a mandatory minimum sentence, like what Belize has in its Firearms Act, is unconstitutional.
“We are therefore urging the government to amend the existing Section 32 that deals with penalties, and to take away the mandatory minimum sentence, and restore the discretion to the Magistrates”, he further said.