|Legal gun supplies dry up
Merchants, licensed firearm holders left hanging as State Department tightens control
|BY T K WHYTE
Observer staff reporter
Sunday, November 24, 2002
A tightening of gun exports by the US State Department has left the vaults of Jamaica's licensed firearm merchants empty, and they and their customers are now in a quandary.
"We don't have the guns to sell to the customers who come to us with police permits to purchase firearms," a prominent Corporate Area firearm dealer told the Sunday Observer last week.
"Let me tell you truthfully, the police have issued us, the dealers, with the appropriate import permits to bring in guns and ammunition, but we can't get the guns from the American dealers to sell and this is affecting business," he complained.
According to the dealer, he is unable to meet what has been a growing demand for firearms, as more persons have been applying for, and receiving gun permits in wake of the island's spiralling crime rate.
More than 900 murders have been committed in Jamaica so far this year, and most of them involved the use of illegal guns.
Although the Constabulary Communication Network declined to disclose the number of licensed firearms islandwide, a police source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, put the figure at 65,000.
According to the source, just under 700 firearm licences are approved each year and nearly half of those are issued to private security guard companies.
All applicants for licensed firearms are checked out by the police and once they meet a set of criteria, are given a 90-day permit by the divisional police superintendent. The applicant is given a firearm licence booklet on production of a receipt from a licensed firearm dealer indicating that he/she has paid for a certain model and calibre gun and ammunition. The booklet is then taken back to the dealer to collect the firearm and the holder must return to the police with the gun for inspection.
Each licence costs $1,000 and expires on March 31 every year.
If the firearm is not purchased within the 90-day period, the holder will have to submit a new application which may or may not be approved by the police.
But since February this year, hundreds of persons who have received firearm licences have been waiting to make a purchase.
One man who received his permit last month expressed his concern to the Sunday Observer that he could lose it unless he is able to acquire a gun by the end of December.
"The police allow you, by law, just three months to acquire the gun. If you fail within that period, the permit is automatically cancelled. That will force me to start the long process of applying for a next permit all over again," he said, unable to disguise his frustration.
He said he had tried the three licensed gun dealers on the island, but none of them had any firearms in stock.
The Kingston dealer told the Sunday Observer that he started experiencing the shortage in February and had contacted the US State Department for an explanation.
"I have made it my business to contact the US State Department officials as far back as February to find out what is really going on, but they only told me that the licences will soon be granted, (so) I am at a loss as to what to do now," he said, adding that closing his business was a possibility, given that that was how he makes his living.
Legal firearm dealers are granted a licence by the minister of national security and the licence is renewable annually on police recommendation.
Essentially, the dealer sends a copy of the licence to the US State Department and a copy to the firearms manufacturers to purchase a quantity of guns. The manufacturers in turn have to apply to the State Department for an export licence, declaring the number of guns ordered.
Last week, Assistant Commissioner of Police Errol Strong, the security attaché at the Jamaican Embassy in Washington, DC, told the Sunday Observer that the US had imposed tighter restrictions on the exportation of firearms.
"When I inquired about the export licence for Jamaica, I was told by the State Department that it was being processed. I expect that it would have been approved by now, but I will continue to check on it," he said.
Strong, however, explained that the restrictions were not limited to Jamaica.
He said that since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the USA, American authorities have imposed heavy restrictions on gun manufacturers to control their production, marketing and distribution outlets. The objective, they said, is to curb the illegal arms flow.
"This restriction also impacted very seriously on the bird season there (Jamaica) last month," Strong said. "I remember that shotgun cartridges were not authorised by the State Department to come into Jamaica. There was a shortage. and we at the embassy had to intervene," he said.
"What has been happening is that the whole situation with the flow of illegal guns has caused the State Department to take a careful and critical look at gun applications," Strong explained.
"You know, guns shipped out from US manufacturers to legitimate dealers overseas have ended up in illegitimate hands because they are able to present false permits to clear the shipment, so this is not unique to Jamaica, it is a worldwide phenomena. they want to cut down on the flow of illegal guns, hence such restrictions are imposed."
He said that the State Department had not been granting export licences speedily and were amending the licences, cutting, sometimes by as much as a quarter, the quantity of guns approved for export.
A United Nations report estimates that there are 500 million illegal guns in circulation worldwide and that the illegal trade is worth US$7 billion per year.
National Security Minister Dr Peter Phillips, when contacted, said he was not aware of the problem.
Phillips returned to the island last night after visiting Britain where he acquired additional assistance from the Tony Blair administration for Jamaica's police force.
But the island has been experiencing a series of gun murders over the past few weeks, putting increased pressure on Phillips and the government to come up with workable solutions to the problem. He is expected to make public his crime plan this week after Tuesday's meeting of the National Security Council.
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