‘I get it’, PM says on gun crimes

Prime Minister Mia Mottley said on Friday about 80 per cent of the murder cases in Barbados yet to be heard occurred before her administration took office four years ago.

But she accepted that a “spike” in gun-related killings over the past few weeks was unacceptable, and so too, perennial complaints about the role that the slow pace of justice was playing in making the problem worse.

Mottley said in the face of her administration’s efforts to reduce a backlog in criminal cases before the courts, the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic put a dent in the justice system’s best efforts because jury trials had to be suspended due to health and safety concerns.

The prime minister said though her administration approved the employment of five more judges and increased the staff complement in the public prosecutor’s office, the backlog was still steep, and the solutions to the gun crime problem had to be “a whole of nation approach”.

“I get it, but during COVID-19 (the pandemic), you know what was shut down, you know what couldn’t happen, and that retarded things a bit,” she said during a nationally televised news conference. “This is not an excuse, and I do not want it to be an excuse.

“Bottomline is if you are encouraging persons by letting them believe it is OK to get away then you have a problem – and that’s why I say we must have ‘a whole of nation approach’.”

The island has been reeling from a number of violent gun deaths with five people dying within five days last week.

Attorney General Dale Marshall and Commissioner of Police Richard Boyce said in a news conference last week the recent “spike” in gun crimes was linked to “specific” groups targeting each other – but Barbadians have appealed for more to be done to stem the violence.

“The government will continue … to provide the funding to the police, and I have indicated to the police, as recent as the last security council meeting, that we are prepared to entertain an increase in the numbers because there are several vacancies still,” the prime minister added.

“We are prepared – and I have told the AG (attorney general) – to increase the number of temporary judges to remove this backlog, especially with the damage that COVID-19 put in it, again through no fault of anyone.”

But, Mottley said, even if the government provided to law enforcement and the justice system all the resources it had promised, a changing value system had also significantly contributed to the rising gun crimes and accessibility to weapons had made the issue severe.

“I recall the press reports from about six or seven years ago about guns coming through the port,” she said. “The Commissioner of Police then, and the AG then, we empathise with them, but guns don’t evaporate. They are not perishable, so once they come in, where are they? More than likely, they are still here.

“While the police have been doing a very good job in being able to restrict the numbers coming in, and while we have spent millions of dollars putting scanners at the airport and the seaport, the reality is that we still have guns on the ground in this community.”

The prime minister said if she had her way, she was willing to initiate a national discussion about “whether guns ought to be part of our landscape or not”.

“But I accept that people feel the issue is too far gone and that those who have legitimate rights to defend themselves with licences ought to be able to do so,” she said. “The problem is: when people become desensitised to killing, guns become an appropriate tool for them, and that’s the difficulty that we are facing.

“Unless we start to have discussions in our homes, in our communities, and in our community clubs… This is not about government alone. Cannot be. Has never been. But the government has an essential role to play with the provision of policies and legislation for law enforcement.”

In this regard, Mottley said there was an amendment coming to the existing Firearms Act that will address the provisions dealing with mandatory minimum sentences, which were deemed unconstitutional.

The prime minister said the government will be following legislation from other jurisdictions, including the United Kingdom and Turks & Caicos Islands, where the sentence of imprisonment for the possession of guns will be mandatory other than in exceptional circumstances.

“Barbados is too small to entertain this kind of violence,” she said. “Whether the violence is guns ultimately or other types of violence – domestic violence, verbal abuse, or whatever – we believe as a nation we need to deal with it,” she said.

Mottley said heads of government of Caricom have also agreed to “treat violence as a public health disease” because the Caribbean had a high rate of homicides per capita compared to larger countries around the world.

The prime minister said this was a result of the easy access to weapons facilitated by the openness of borders because of geography, and the reliance on trade and tourism.

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