Friday, December 17, 2010

Bearing Arms (Cayman's guns and criminals)

The right to bear arms is an American concept, dating from the colonial rebellion against Britain. In the earliest days, armed individuals played a crucial role. The British Army despised them for their informalities in the same way that today’s occupiers of Afghanistan despise the local resistance fighters. No uniforms? It’s just not cricket.

It has never been the British way to allow civilians in peacetime to have access to the weapons of war - or to carry any weapons at all, even for self-defence. Instead, there exists a sort of “social contract” between rulers and subjects. A national army will protect the citizenry from foreign invasion, and official Police forces will protect individual citizens from domestic criminals.

Britain’s rulers believe that individual citizens can’t be trusted to act responsibly. America’s various levels of government in general disagree, and the nation’s 1787 Constitution (as ratified and amended) famously recognises the possession of weapons as a basic civil right. American townsfolk may not be allowed to shoot up the heavens to celebrate weddings, but they are allowed to keep weapons in their homes or on their persons, subject to local licensing laws.

There is no general right to possess or carry firearms in the British colony of Cayman Islands. However, there are several categories of persons who can be exempted from the general prohibition. It’s worth taking a moment to look at who these privileged persons are, and who does the exempting.

The best known category is members of the Gun Club. It’s probably unfair to call it a secretive organisation, but it does keep an extremely low public profile; it doesn’t advertise its rules or its officers or membership, or solicit new members. In effect, it is pretty much a self-selected civilian militia. I would guess that its members have to produce clean Police Certificates once a year, but maybe not. Maybe the Police have to approve all members, but maybe not. It's a secret.

We know that the owners and managers of selected businesses are allowed to carry guns to and from work, and to store them at home- unloaded, with ammunition kept separate from the guns. Who grants the privilege is not public knowledge; nor are the names of the grantees; nor are the rules and qualifications. Too many secrets! The Police Commissioner has the authority to permit some Police Officers (including Special Constables) to carry pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns on duty and sometimes off duty. The rules, names, qualifications and circumstances are all closely guarded secrets.

Finally, some private security guards are exempted from the general prohibition. Again, their identities are not disclosed - or the rules governing the exemptions, or who grants them. As to the last, I presume the Governor or one of his local FCO minders does the honours.

One can only guess how many individuals in our community are authorised either to carry guns or to keep them locked away (huh!) until used for the purposes envisioned in the licences. Something between five hundred and a thousand, is my guess. That might be roughly one in every fifty or so residents. Quite a nice little militia, when you think about it.

Current fears of violent crime by gun-wielding thugs are prompting calls for the number of legal owners to be increased in every category. Before that happens, though, we ought to insist on some transparency.

Just out of interest: who issued all the licences in Kingston, over the years? Prominent members of the community, wasn’t it? Isn’t that how the political gangs came about? Those among us who want more people to own guns - let’s get some transparency first.