Danger zone To shoot or not to shoot? Licensed firearm holders advised to avoid shoot-outs where possible
Mel Cooke, Sunday Gleaner Writer
On December 9, 2001, The Sunday Gleaner reported that "The number of deaths caused by licensed firearm holders has been increasing over the last four years ... . Since the start of the year, there have been 22 fatal shootings by licensed firearm holders. In 2000, there were 20, in 1999 there were 10 and in 1998 there were three."
Nearly a decade later, the issue of fatal shootings by licensed firearm holders, never out of the news with intermittent reports of criminals being challenged by private citizens carrying legal firearms, has hit the headlines again in particularly bloody fashion. On Friday, January 21, three gunmen command-eered a public-passenger bus on Half-Way Tree Road and ordered the driver to drive to Grove Road, where they started to rob passengers. They were challenged by a passenger who was carrying a legal firearm and, during the shoot-out, one of the gunmen and three passengers were killed.
A child was also shot in the grisly incident.
The Firearm Training Manual, posted on the Firearm Licensing Authority's (FLA) website www.fla.gov.jm, speaks extensively to the use of firearms. It presents various segments of the Firearms Act (Jamaica, 1967 and amendments) and, quoting Section 23, states that "a person shall not discharge any firearm or ammunition on or within forty yards of any public road or in any public place except under the following circumstances" - and the first of those three circumstances is "in the lawful protection of his person or property or of the person or property of some other person".
Jamaican law also allows for "reasonable force, up to and including the use of, or the threat of lethal force, to be employed in the defence of a person's life. The threat must be of a criminal or careless and reckless nature, and the threat must be clear, identifiable and able to cause serious injury or death," says the training manual.
In Chapter 3 of the handbook, which speaks to 'Security Issues and Mindset', it states "No matter how confident you are in your skill with a firearm, it is always better - legally, emotionally and practically - to deter or evade attack rather than to have to use legal force." It further states that "You have no obligation to get into a confrontation with another person. In fact, you should do everything in your power to avoid confrontations, and just because you are armed doesn't mean you must confront anyone at gunpoint ... . Be careful not to escalate the aggression by issuing threats or insults. Instead, try to calm everyone down. Try to defuse the situation - apologise, cajole, plead ... . There is nothing that says you have to stay in the danger zone. Find a way to quickly and safely get away."
Engage to protect
Maurice Black has been training persons in firearm use and safety since 2002 and has been authorised by the FLA since its inception in 2005. A corporal in the Jamaica Defence Force's (JDF) National Reserve, he emphasises that "you engage when life is at risk". That life can be that of the person carrying the licensed firearm or, as Black points out, "if you go to the assistance of someone else and you become at risk".
He recalls a situation in which a member of the JDF was on a bus, which ended up in much the same situation as the public-passenger vehicle on January 21. The soldier was carrying his licensed firearm, but did not engage the criminals, who remarked that he looked like a policeman. The gun was not found on the first search, but when the thieves checked the man over a second time and found his firearm they shot him dead.
Still, Black makes it clear that he is not saying the result would have been different if the soldier had challenged the criminals. However, in deciding whether to engage or not, "the question is, was his life in immediate danger? That's what it comes down to now. Is there no other option?"
And he concludes, "A person searching the passengers coming down and you know you have a firearm, your life is in immediate danger."
Where bystanders are concerned, on the FLA website's fifth basic rule of firearm safety is "know your target, what is beyond and around the target".