National Security Minister says “…the clamors now for a reduction in sentences and the stiffness of the Firearms Act could only be entertained now in the new environment, where we have seen in 2013 a drastic reduction in crimes.”
At the Special Sitting of the House of Representatives Wednesday, Opposition Leader Francis Fonseca echoed strong public sentiments that the existing firearms legislation unjustly casts too much of a wide net, to the peril of many innocent and upstanding citizens who have had to spend time in jail on account of the laws which National Security Minister John Saldivar conceded to be “draconian,” but which, he claimed, were necessary to push back a spiraling crime rate.
“I am no fan of guns, but it is clear that the laws, as they now stand, lead to injustice and inequity, and [we] have obligation to review [it],” Fonseca said, adding that the necessary revisions ought to be made to take account of public concerns.
Recently, community activists such as Russell Roberts and Citizens Organized for Liberty through Action (COLA) have been clamoring for the Government to urgently revisit the laws in question. Last week Friday, Special Branch Corporal Gino Peck was the first to escape a jail sentence, after a firearms conviction, when he instead was fined $600 in court. The incident intensified public demands for Government to revisit the controversial firearms laws.
Fonseca, who is himself also a practicing attorney, also noted that the legislation impairs the ability of the judiciary to exercise discretion in sentencing, where discretion ought to be left to the court to take into account the facts of the case such as the age of the accused, the quantity of firearms and ammunition found, and/or other relevant matters such as whether the accused was a previous license holder or whether he or she has a reasonable excuse for the possession of the firearms.
Fonseca also questioned why firearm possession convictions would attract a higher maximum sentence than trafficking – 25 years versus 20 years.
He furthermore recommended that section 16.2 of the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act should be amended to specify the quantity of weapons which must be exceeded before a magistrate’s discretion to grant bail is taken away, as is the case with drug offences.
The Opposition Leader said that at the time these bills were debated in Parliament (over four years ago), the Government had been warned that the changes could potentially lead to abuses and inequity, although he realizes the need to remain tough on crime and to effectively monitor the use of firearms in this country.
Responding to the Leader of the Opposition, National Security Minister John Saldivar said that the time during which the various amendments to the Firearm Act were made, back in 2008, was a time when the country was experiencing a major surge in gang violence and gang-related crimes or gun-related crimes.
“It is within that atmosphere that the Government felt compelled to take stringent measures to deal with the rising crime situation. I must say, though, that the clamors now for a reduction in sentences and the stiffness of the Firearms Act could only be entertained now in the new environment, where we have seen in 2013 a drastic reduction in crimes,” Saldivar said.
The National Security Minister said that they have listened carefully to the presentation previously made by Fonseca, the House member for Freetown.
“I promise not only to him, but to this nation, that my government will be looking very carefully, having now gotten reprieve from the crime situation, at how we can revise the Firearms and other related law to make them more fair,” he said.
Saldivar said that he accepts the categorization of the legislation as draconian but submitted that “…they have been most instrumental in assisting the police in its fight against crime.”
He said that he had met with both the Director of Public Prosecution and the Solicitor General this week, and they have begun a review of the pertinent laws with a view of finding more fair and less draconian laws that will not restrict or reduce the ability of the police to deal with criminals—but certainly, they want to ensure that ordinary citizens are not caught by the wide net of these laws.
As for the Crime Control and Criminal Justice Act, Saldivar said that they are indeed looking at the jurisdiction of the magistrate with respect to the current law and looking at returning to the magistrates the jurisdiction of deciding on bail matters; however, he said, he believes that there have to be certain provisions for special extenuating circumstances that would need to be considered before granting bail.
He also said that they are looking at proposals to narrow the net of persons police can hold accountable for firearms and ammunition found on a property.
According to Saldivar, they plan to undertake a public consultation on the matter; however, as for the proposal to consider the quantity of arms found in determining the punitive sanctions which would apply, Saldivar said that while he can see how this could pertain to ammunition, it could not apply to firearms, because one gun is one too many.
He recalled a case where a single bullet had landed some individuals in prison, and said that this is a concern that can be looked at.
“We take onboard the comments made by the member for Freetown and will certainly begin now in earnest the consultation, without compromising the police’s ability to maintain law and order,” Saldivar concluded.
Concerned citizens George and Candy Gonzalez told Amandala today that they have long had concerns about the legislation, and they intend to submit those concerns to Parliament, in line with the pending review.
The Gonzalez couple note that, “As written, the Act makes it a crime to use a firearm not licensed to the individual using it. It seems there should be a provision [to say] that when two people have licensed firearms and live in the same house [that they should both] have the right to use either firearm, in the case of emergency.”
They said that back in 2008, the Government passed an amendment to the Firearms Act which mandated immediate incarceration for anyone in the area of an unlicensed gun or ammunition, including anyone found in any house, vehicle, building, yard, church, etc., where an unlicensed gun and ammunition was found.
“If someone threw a bullet in your yard, you and anyone else found in the area could be jailed and could not apply for bail for at least two weeks. That means that the entire family, including grandparents and children, could be jailed,” they noted.
The couple adds that it is a form of extortion to force someone to plead guilty—which is what some have done to save their friends or relatives from facing incarceration.
“It also makes us less helpful to others,” the couple added. “When on the road, one doesn’t want to pick up people who are strangers. If that person happens to have an unlicensed gun or ammunition, I could go to jail along with anyone in the vehicle, even if that person is riding in the back of the pickup and not in the [main cab of the] vehicle.”