Govt to take a shot at gun amnesty By Nigel Williams
Stabroek News
April 20, 2007

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After resisting the idea of introducing a gun amnesty programme for several years, the government is now moving in that direction as gun crime continues to spiral out of control.

Home Affairs Minister Clement Rohee said on Wednesday that those who are holding illegal weapons would have a chance to turn them in without facing prosecution under the new law which is in the drafting stages.

Last year, Rohee and President Bharrat Jagdeo were asked whether the administration would consider such a programme and they both said that it might not work here. However, the administration seems to have had a change of heart and Rohee told a news conference on Wednesday that he would be tabling the Firearm Amendment Bill in the National Assembly shortly and this would cater for an amnesty programme. This newspaper had asked the minister last year whether the administration was considering such a law given the proliferation of illegal weapons on the streets. He had said then that one had to investigate whether similar programmes had been successful in other countries. "We don't want to re-invent the wheel, rather we want to learn from the experiences of other countries," Rohee had said. He however told reporters on Tuesday that at the level of the Law and Order Commission the recommendation was made to have an amnesty programme and he was in support of it. "I am supportive of that suggestion and I have so informed the Attorney General's Chambers to look at it so that it could be included in the Firearm Amendment Bill."

President Jagdeo was also asked about such a programme in the run up to last year's general elections and he had said flatly that the programme does not work. "Amnesties do not work. You think Rondell 'Fineman Rawlins' will bring in his gun?" the President inquired at a news conference held at the PPP/C headquarters last year August. An amnesty was one of the ideas floated by a number of political parties to soak up the illegal guns on the streets during last year's elections campaign. The United Force as well as the Alliance For Change had advocated this initiative to deal with the illegal gun problem. President Jagdeo however said then that the experience with amnesty programmes in other countries was not encouraging, citing neighbouring Brazil as an example.

He said then that in most cases persons would take advantage of ideas such as buy-back schemes by bringing in their old guns and using the money to buy new ones. Jagdeo added that the only people attracted by these schemes are those who might buy guns illegally for protection rather than criminal purposes.

High-powered weapons, including M-70s and AK-47 assault rifles have featured in many attacks in recent years. Last year 30 AK-47 rifles were stolen from a Guyana Defence Force base and close to half of them have been recovered in the possession of bandits killed by the Joint Services.

Rohee had promised to be tough on gunrunners and to introduce stiffer penalties for gun crimes. He told members of the press on Wednesday that the Firearm Amendment Bill would be tabled to increase fines and penalties for persons who are found in possession of unlicensed firearms. He said one of the penalties would be the refusal of bail to persons charged under the Act. A number of high-profile cases where persons were taken before the courts on serious gun charges have collapsed over the years.

Rohee had first made public the administration's intentions to toughen the laws to deal with unlicensed weapons during a community meeting at Canal Number Two Polder last year following a dramatic assault on a number of households by a gang of heavily armed men. One woman died as a result of a gunshot wound during the robbery and one of the bandits was later found dead in a trench with one of the stolen army AK-47s slung by his side.

A resident had asked Rohee why persons arrested for illegal possession of arms and ammunition were "getting off so lightly" and he responded that there was legislation being put in place to make possession of unlicensed firearms and ammunition non-bailable. Rohee had stressed that any person found with illegal firearms especially those that are not permitted by law to be used by civilians should not get bail in the courts.

Rohee will also be tabling several other security bills in the National Assembly shortly including the Juvenile Offenders (Amendment) Bill, which is expected to allow for the establishment of holding centres for youths who have committed crimes as they await their court day. There will also be the Traffic Offences Bill, The Use of Cell Phones Whilst Driving Bill and the Criminal Jurisdiction Offences (Amendment) Bill, which will make the necessary provisions to penalise persons who are engaged in harbouring criminals.

Rohee also said that a bill to regulate the establishment of internet cafés would be introduced. He told reporters that the bill to regulate internet cafés was considered following the anonymous email that was circulated to several agencies including the US Embassy last year threatening that some American airlines would come under attack.

"That incident although it was a fake was an eye opener for us to be more cautious since the source of that email was traced to an internet café in New Amsterdam," Rohee said. He told reporters that anyone can open an internet café and this should not be, noting that a lot of crimes are being committed using information technology as well as a lot of misinformation transmitted. Rohee could not describe exactly the contents of the bill but noted that it was something the relevant authorities had to discuss and come up with the best possible draft.