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Dollars for Illegal Guns: Is It Helping? - October 24, 2005

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Dollars for Illegal Guns: Is It Helping?

Greetings, fellow Saint Lucians.


On my way home this past weekend from the meeting of the Board of Governors of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank in Saint Kitts and Nevis, I encountered a family friend who lived and worked in Antigua. Inevitably, the conversation turned to Saint Lucia, to politics, to tourism and crime. Like many Saint Lucians, he was worried about crime and its consequences on our society and economy. The he turned and said, “I hear you all paying criminals for illegal guns.” I asked him where did he get that from. He replied, “In the news. It was reported on the radio and television, and in the newspapers.”

I confessed my surprise, because, my friend, like many others, had been led to accept, without more, an interpretation of the programme that was clearly incorrect. The way my friend put it suggests that criminals walk to the Police and hand in their guns and are paid $2,500. That is not so.

I explained to my friend that the programme paid a reward to persons who provided information which led to the recovery of illegal firearms. True, it is possible that a criminal, attracted by the reward of $2,500, would betray another criminal and provide information that eventually would lead to the recovery of an illegal firearm. But if one criminal could expose another criminal, then all the better in the fight against crime.

This encounter with my friend encouraged me to add my voice to the ongoing debate about the Programme for the Recovery of Illegal Firearms. Actually, the debate has been helpful, because it has popularised the programme even more.

I think I should explain the programme again.

A Waste of Money?

Under this programme, persons who supply the police with information leading to the safe recovery of illegal firearms are rewarded with a cash award of EC $2,500.

The critics say that the programme is a waste of time and money; that the criminals are only enriching themselves by turning in guns that cost less to buy or to make. Some even suggest that the money paid so far could have been better spent on repairing the Central Police Station. Choice words have been used to describe the programme: dumb, stupid, reckless and irresponsible, are some of the adjectives used.

Some of the criticisms, I must say, are well-meant, in that, they are made with a view to trying to ensure that the taxpayers of this country are not being taken for a ride by criminals. The Commissioner should listen carefully to all of these views, and, if necessary, make adjustments to the programme.

Here Are The Facts

In order to understand the effectiveness of the incentive programme for the recovery of illegal firearms, one needs to understand the programme, its objectives and benefits.

To begin with, the programme is not one year old, but ten months old. To date, up to October 20, 2005, the total number of firearms recovered under the programme is 150. Of these, 94 were recovered as a result of direct information from informants, while 11 were recovered as a result of police investigations and direct search operations such as patrols and road blocks. However, 45 guns were recovered as a result of searches carried out by the police, with warrants. And, very importantly, approximately just as many – about 45 persons -- were arrested, charged and convicted as a direct result of the programme.

Compare the success of the programme with previous years. In 2001, only 54 guns were recovered; in 2002, 55 were recovered; in 2003, 60; and in 2004 the number went down to only 48. The evidence shows quite clearly, therefore, that if 150 firearms have been recovered for only eight months of this year, then it must mean that the programme is working – and working effectively.

Dangerous and Deadly Guns Recovered

Let us also look at the types of firearms that have been recovered. A closer examination of the recovered illegal firearms displayed by the police and shown on your TV screens and in the newspapers recently, reveals that the types of weapons on our streets are becoming increasingly dangerous, lethal and sophisticated.

I know it will not surprise you that there are also the more sophisticated types among the illegal guns. Just last week, the police recovered a point-two-two sniper’s rifle, complete with telescope and silencer.

The issue is not whether the guns look used, rusty or even disfigured. The real issue is this: Can the recovered gun kill, maim or injure? If it can kill, then clearly, there is every reason to remove it from the streets.

Yielding Positive Results

Incidentally, about 45 persons are facing jail terms or fines for the possession of illegal firearms. Those who are in jail will obviously be denied the possibility of getting involved in gun-related crimes, such as robbery or homicide – at least for the time being. It may be described as a drop in the bucket, as claimed by some, but it is a major step in emptying that bucket.

Life Is Valued In More Than Just Dollars And Cents

The main criticism of the programme has been the amount involved. Some claim the $2,500 is too much to pay to take an illegal gun off the street. This is a simple dollars-and-cents argument. But let’s look at the figures again.

First of all, I do not believe that $2,500 is too much to pay to save a life. Look at it this way. By taking 150 illegal guns off the streets, the police have effectively and practically reduced the possibility of some of these guns taking a life.

The cost of burying or treating a single victim of gun crime has to be estimated in more than just dollars and cents. That’s because life is in fact worth more than just dollars and cents. We must not forget that each person killed with a gun has left a grieving family – and that could include parents, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, cousins, nieces and nephews – and lots of friends. Similarly, initial surgery costs for a victim of a gunshot wound is way over $2,500 – not counting after-surgery and subsequent recovery costs, including costs of medicine.

We must not forget that each gun taken off the streets also reduces the risk of a police officer encountering an armed assailant while executing his or her duty.

But there is a more fundamental point. The level of the reward must be such that it can entice people to give information, entice also those criminals who wish to give information about other criminals.

The Conditions…

Unfortunately, it has been made to appear that the police are paying $2,500 for each gun recovered. That is not so. There are conditions.

For example, money is only paid when an illegal gun is safely recovered. The amount paid to an informant, for instance, will depend on whether the gun is working or not. Contrary to what is being said and written, no one gets $2,500 for a home-made gun -- or for a gun that does not function. Besides, each gun recovered is tested and subjected to ballistics examination. This can help determine whether the gun was used in a crime already under investigation, or if the bullets from that gun match any found in any case being investigated or so far unsolved.

Helping In The Wider Fight

The programme has other benefits. The information gathered by the police in recovering each illegal firearm adds to the pool of information available to the police in the wider crime fight. For example, the information also helps to recover illegal drugs and stolen items; and it also helps the police better know or understand the criminal networks involved, the gangs and the gang-related criminal activity. No Police Force can fight crime without good intelligence.

Dollars For Guns: Two Examples From Elsewhere…

Some have also argued that the programme does not work elsewhere. They say no one offers $2,500 for an illegal gun anywhere. That is definitely not so. Rewards are offered for illegal guns in other places. I will offer two examples – one where it works and one where it has not worked, so far.

Let’s first take the example closer to home.

In Trinidad & Tobago, Crime Stoppers took out advertisements in the local papers earlier this year offering $10,000 – Trinidad & Tobago dollars -- for information leading to the recovery of illegal guns or arrest of criminals. To the best of my information, that programme has not brought the desired or expected results in Trinidad & Tobago.

The question, therefore, is this: why is a reward of $10,000 Trinidad & Tobago dollars not working in Trinidad, whereas $2,500 E.C. is working in St. Lucia?

Those involved in research of such factors say the reason has to do with confidence – with the level of confidence that the people have in those making the offer – whether the Police or the Crime Stoppers. I believe that there is good reason to have confidence in our programme. Of the 150 cases of illegal weapons recovered, there has not been, so far, one single complaint of a breach of confidentiality, of any person’s identity being exposed.

For those who say the programme of giving dollars for guns does not exist anywhere else, I wish to point them to Brazil. Last year, 36,000 persons were killed as a result of gun crimes across Brazil. This year, the government instituted a programme of inviting persons to surrender guns for dollars – whether illegal or not – and the Brazilian police are today reporting that the number of deaths by guns has decreased so far this year, in comparison with the same time last year.

Like here too, the dollars-for-guns programme in Brazil is just one part of a series of measures aimed at reducing gun crimes. There, the government held a referendum over the weekend on whether to make it more difficult to purchase legal guns, even while it is tightening on its liberal gun laws.

Reducing The Influx…

As I speak, our police are trying to reduce the influx of guns into the country. The French authorities in Martinique are cooperating with us. They have tightened their own liberal regime to make it more difficult to purchase firearms. Our police have also been increasing their interdiction of vessels arriving from Venezuela and Colombia with drugs and illegal guns. But, at the end of the day, even while we tighten the dragnet at sea, even while we increase security at our bays and coves, it is even more important that we go after those guns that are already on land, already in hand and being used by those who attach no value to human life.

Not A Programme For Criminals…

This programme is also testimony to the fact that more and more St. Lucians want to take the Police into their confidence and assist in the fight against crime in all its manifestations.

This is not a programme for criminals. It is a programme for protecting citizens. If crime pays for the criminals, those who help stop or solve crime could at least be rewarded for their efforts.

Until next week, God Bless. Do take care; Be vigilant and fight crime. Never give up or give in to criminals!



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