Dear Editor: Why more FULs are likelier to mean increased violence—not safety

“[…] Over the last five months, four law enforcement officers were involved in incidents with their licensed firearms.  Three of these were robberies in which two of the officers lost their lives.

“The fourth, also resulting in the death of an officer, stemmed from an argument. Two firearms were stolen and have not been recovered.

“While the number of murders in the country fell marginally in 2023 and the toll up to mid-May this year was a tad lower than for the same period last year, gun violence has been on the rise.

“Our country can be said to have entered the realm of mass shootings as, in March and May this year, a total of nine persons were killed and 17 injured in mass shootings in Harpe Place; Speyside, Tobago; and Powder Magazine, Cocorite…”

The following Letter to the Editor, which considers increased requests for FULs and the potential implications, was submitted to Wired868 by Anton Doldron:

A burglar breaks into a house.

Crime has been identified as the number one concern of the population. After it come infrastructure improvements, specifically, a reliable and regular water supply; road repair and education.

In responding to the level of crime, a number of stakeholders have focused on the need to secure firearm users’ licenses (FULs) as a means of protecting themselves and their families.

One business head has publicly suggested that the Commissioner of Police (CoP), the sole authority for the grant of FULs, should streamline the FUL system and make it efficient.

Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher.
Photo: Office of the Parliament 2024

In fact, the CoP has been taken to court for failing to issue, in a timely manner, the necessary approvals and for making changes to the renewal process for FULs. In 2018, a former CoP had reported that there were 13,000 applicants for FULs.

Over the last five months, four law enforcement officers were involved in incidents with their licensed firearms. Three of these were robberies in which two of the officers lost their lives.

The fourth, also resulting in the death of an officer, stemmed from an argument. Two firearms were stolen and have not been recovered.

While the number of murders in the country fell marginally in 2023 and the toll up to mid-May this year was a tad lower than for the same period last year, gun violence has been on the rise.

Our country can be said to have entered the realm of mass shootings as, in March and May this year, a total of nine persons were killed and 17 injured in mass shootings in Harpe Place; Speyside, Tobago; and Powder Magazine, Cocorite.

The linkages between gun ownership and accessibility and the level of gun violence have been highlighted in countless studies.

In the United States, there are more mass shootings than in any other country. Studies indicate that the rate of public mass shootings in the US has tripled since 2011. While mass shootings occurred roughly once every 200 days between 1982 and 2011, during the 13 years since 2011, the rate has accelerated, reaching one every 64 days.

High accessibility and ownership of guns has been cited as a major reason for the high rate of mass shootings in the US.

The US also boasts the highest per capita gun ownership in the world.  Its 120.5 guns per 100 persons puts it way ahead of second-placed Yemen, which has 52.8 guns per 100 persons.

United States is closely linked to gun violence.

Although America has a mere 4% of the world’s population, its civilians own 46% of the global gun stock.

In the mid-1990s, the majority of Americans cited recreation as the main reason for gun ownership. In a 2023 Pew Research survey, however, 71% gave protection as the main reason for gun ownership.

The statistics show that, in 2021, 20,958  murders (81% of the total figure) in the United States involved a firearm. This was the highest figure since 1968, when the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began keeping online records.

Additionally, 26,328 out of 48,183 (55%) of all suicides in that country in 2021 involved a gun, the highest since 2001. On average, more than 200 Americans visit the emergency department for non-fatal injuries each day.

The close relationship between gun ownership and access and gun violence is even seen among states within the US. In the South and Mountain West, where the ownership levels are higher and gun laws weaker, death rates are higher in comparison to the Northeast, where gun violence prevention laws are stronger.

Linked to the question of gun ownership is safety. Records indicate that the majority of US firearm owners choose to leave their firearms unlocked and loaded, giving easy access to children or persons who are at risk for violence. This practice facilitates theft and allows firearms to enter the illegal market and be used in crime.

In recent years, as more Americans carry firearms in public, theft from cars has skyrocketed, accounting for the majority of thefts. In fact, one analysis of crime data reported to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) found that, on average, at least one firearm is reported stolen from a car every 15 minutes.

Firearms also contribute to domestic violence, with over half of all intimate partner homicides being committed with firearms.

Another consideration is the temptation that comes with possession. The right to carry firearms in public increases the risk of violence, fostering the escalation of minor arguments.

A man reaches for his firearm during a traffic incident.

Research has found that the mere presence of a firearm increases aggressive thoughts and actions.

The global picture reveals that firearm homicide and suicide rates in the US are nearly 25 and 10 times higher respectively than other high-income countries.

A 2018 study of 195 countries and territories by researchers at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington found that the US gun death rate in 2016 was 10.6 per 100,000 people compared to 2.1 in Canada, 1.0 in Australia, 2.7 in France, 0.9 in Germany and 0.6 in Spain.

Police officers get to work behind crime scene tape.
Photo: AP Photo/ David Goldman

The Latin American countries, however, recorded much higher death rates, with El Salvador’s 39.2 per 100,000 people, Venezuela’s 38.7, Guatemala’s 32.2, Colombia’s 25.9 and Honduras’ 22.5. Overall, the study ranked the US 20th in the gun fatality ratings for that 2016 year.

In Trinidad and Tobago, murders reached 28.5 per 100,000 head of population. This figure was taken from the Joint Select Committee (JSC) report laid in the House of Representatives on 1 March 2024. By way of comparison, the figure for Jamaica was 44.7 per 100,000.

Over four decades of public health research has consistently found that firearm ownership increases the risk of firearm homicide, suicide and unintentional injury. It is therefore difficult to comprehend what is behind the numerous calls for an increase in the number of firearms users’ licenses.

A gun dealership in USA.

In May 2023, a local newspaper reported the contents of an affidavit filed in the High Court by the Commissioner of Police in response to the lawsuit brought by a gun dealer who was seeking to import 3.65 million rounds of ammunition.

According to the article, approved gun import permits increased from 91 to 150 between 2018 and 2019 and then to 306 in 2021. This represented 65% and 104% increases respectively.

Over the same period, the number of guns imported moved from 5,422 to 22,750 to 64,553 in 2021, while ammunition rounds imported reached 57.2 million in 2021 from 2.6 million in 2018.

Two young women protest against gun laws in the United States.

The average number of guns and rounds of ammunition imported for the two years immediately prior to 2018 was 1,643 and 5.5 million respectively. However, the CoP indicated that those figures were incomplete, based, I assume, on the fact that information from the Customs and Excise Division was not provided.

Other factors which concerned the Trinidad and Tobago Police Service was the failure of FUL holders to have their firearms test-fired at the Forensic Science Centre so that a ballistic report of the weapon could be uploaded in the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS).

This, according to the CoP, impacted the tracing of projectiles found at crimes, as the TTPS has no way of knowing whether licensed firearms are being used in the commission of crimes.

Commissioner of Police Erla Harewood-Christopher.
Photo: TTPS

The variations of civilian permits to carry multiple guns, including high-powered rifles, and the large number of conversion kits imported by gun dealers were also highlighted.  Under the Firearms Act, fully automatic weapons are prohibited while semi-automatic weapons are permitted; these latter, however, can be altered using the conversion kits.

While previously, civilians were allowed between 25-50 rounds of ammunition for their guns, the document reported that, in some instances, 1,000 rounds of ammunition were approved for each weapon.

The approval process was also highlighted.  Some variations to purchase multiple guns were granted within 24 hours or mere days, without evidence of the applicants’ training or any updated assessment of their mental state.

Gun play in a domestic issue.

Also worth noting is this: the large quantities of spent shells found at crime scenes within recent times suggest that ammunition in the country is easily available.

Defending the TTPS against charges of overly long delays, the CoP indicated that, before permission is granted for additional firearms and ammunition to be imported, there must first be proper accounting for all the firearms and ammunition imported into the country under existing permits.

Editor’s Note: Click HERE to read Anton Doldron’s follow-up letter, as he considers whether Stand Your Ground legislation or tightened gun laws would better suit Trinidad and Tobago.

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