Horace Chang | Combating existential threats of guns, gunmen and gangs
In the field of security, an accurate assessment of threats and the identification of vulnerabilities are critical to understanding the level of risk posed to any asset. An assessment of the present security environment in the country has uncovered guns, gunmen, and gangs as existential threats to the Jamaican State.
Over the past two and a half decades, guns, gunmen, and gangs have featured heavily in the country’s criminal violence, accounting for the overwhelming majority of serious violent crimes. Last year, for example, 85 per cent of the 1,463 murders were committed with the use of a gun, while 72 per cent were attributed as gang-related. At the same time, 80 per cent of the 765 robberies involved the use of a firearm, and 1,258 shooting incidents were recorded across the island.
The threats of guns, gunmen, and gangs have exploited numerous vulnerabilities within our communities, over the years, in order to pose this level of risk to the society. Some of these vulnerabilities include the proliferation of illegal guns in the country, the development of a strong gun culture over time, the ambivalence of the society towards illegal guns and gunmen, and weaknesses in our legislative framework. There is no doubt that a critical element in reducing the level of risk posed to the country is going to be hard policing, accompanied by special legislative measures to give the police the tool to control the criminal violence very quickly.
PROLIFERATION OF ILLEGAL GUNS
Criminal activities such as lotto scamming and the guns-for-drugs trade have helped to create widespread ownership of illegal guns across the country. It is well known, and confirmed by police reports, that lotto scammers, especially those in western part of the island, are using their criminal proceeds to acquire illegal guns and ammunition. Additionally, criminal gangs, facilitated by fishing boats, engage in the exchange of drugs from Jamaica for handguns and high-powered assault weapons from our Caribbean and Central American neighbours.
For the four-year period 2018 to 2021, over 2,700 firearms and more than 44,000 rounds of ammunition were seized across the 19 police divisions. So far this year, more than 100 firearms have been seized, with the St James Police Division accounting for about a third of the seizures.
DEVELOPMENT OF GUN CULTURE
Over time, society has allowed the lauding and acceptance of guns, even those obtained illegally, to creep into our culture. As a country, we have sat back for decades as the gun culture slowly took over our communities to the point where the possession of illegal guns has become akin to a rite of passage and a way of life for many young men.
AMBIVALENCE IN THE SOCIETY
The ambivalence of the society towards illegal guns has helped to strengthen the gun culture in Jamaica. As a society, we have been tardy in denouncing the illegal gun.
Individuals and corporations alike have openly and tacitly given support and endorsement to cultural activities, music in particular, that distort and corrupt our globally acclaimed reggae culture by validating criminal violence and guns. Yet they fail to see the link between their actions and the high murder rate and shootings experienced in the society. Society’s ambivalence has led our young men to believe that they can take up an illegal gun to correct for whatever historic social injustices that may have existed in the past.
The society cannot be two-faced or ambivalent about illegal guns. We must speak absolutely with one voice against the illegal guns, gunmen, and the criminal violence they propagate.
GUN AS A TOOL OF POWER
It is no secret that many of our young men choose the gun as a means of empowerment. While some have chosen education and other positive pursuits as their pathway to a better life, and their vehicle to escape their circumstances, too many of them, unfortunately, have choose the gun as their means of earning a living and getting respect.
I, therefore, call on all of the society to send a clear and unequivocal message to our youths that taking up a gun as a tool of power is not a wise and viable option. We must seek to disabuse our young men of any notion that excused the possession of an illegal gun as a means of self-defence, a means of livelihood, or a means of correcting historic social inequities. We must provide effective means to restore their dignity, hope, and a better quality of life outside of crime. It is our responsibility to plug these vulnerabilities that have existed within the society and been exploited by the triple threats of guns, gunmen, and gangs over the years. We must break the culture that drives our young men to want to acquire an illegal gun.
DISINCENTIVISING GUN POSSESSION
The Government recently launched a new incentivised reward programme: “Operation Get Every Illegal Gun”. In addition to a multimillion-dollar fund, which will offer monetary reward for information leading to the recovery of illegal guns and the arrest of the persons behind the guns, the Government has tabled a new Firearms Bill to Parliament.
This Repeal and Replace Bill will significantly increase the penalty for possessing an illegal gun and create several new offences. These initiatives, taken together, are designed to disincentivise the possession of illegal guns by drastically changing the risk-benefit structure around illegal guns. At present, gunmen perceive the risk of possessing an illegal gun as relatively low compared to the benefits they derive.
The Firearms (Prohibition, Restriction, and Regulation) Act 2022 will create a new regime, with stronger penalties to disincentivise gun possession. As we aggressively get the guns, we are expanding investment in the high-risk communities.
It is imperative that every member of society cooperate with this new thrust of ridding our communities of illegal guns by providing the relevant information to the police.
SPECIAL LEGISLATIVE MEASURES
Based on the level of risk that the guns, the gunmen, and the gangs pose to the society at this point in time, it may be necessary to have enhanced legislative measures that undergo Parliamentary scrutiny. This would give the Parliament the opportunity to have periodic reviews and decide on its needs and merits until we get the criminal violence down to acceptable levels. The idea is not to normalise the use of enhanced legislative measures, however, given the entrenched gun culture and the existential threat of guns, gunmen, and gangs, we must utilise these measures to restore good order.
With the security forces continuously improving their capacity to detect and recover illegal guns, special legislative measures will only further augment the crime fighting capabilities of the security forces. I am confident that the security forces have the leadership and capacity to be very professional and surgical in the conduct of their operations to recover illegal guns and secure our communities.
Strong, hard policing is the primary tool for treating with the perditious epidemic of guns, gunmen, and gangs. It is the foundation upon which we will restore public safety, good order, and prosperity in our society.
- Dr Horace Chang is Jamaica’s deputy prime minister, minister of national security, and member of parliament for North West St James. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.