CoP: 100 legal guns used in crimes

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

Police Commissioner Erla Harewood-Christopher has raised serious concerns about civilians being granted permission to use military-grade weapons and ammunition similar to what this officer is using. – Jeff K. Mayers

OVER 100 guns granted under the tenure of three former police commissioners – Stephen Williams, Gary Griffith and McDonald Jacob –­ have been used to commit crimes of murder, robberies and suicides.

And intelligence from the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) and other foreign agencies suggest that 30 guns imported by authorised gun dealers have ended up in the hands of criminals and used in at least one instance to commit murder.

These alarming claims were made by Commissioner of Police (CoP) Erla Harewood-Christopher in a sworn statement filed in the High Court two weeks ago in response to a lawsuit of gun dealer Towfeek Ali who is seeking permission to import 3,654,000 rounds of ammunition.

The CoP raised serious national security concerns and the stability of the country over such imports, the poor accounting records of guns and ammunition imported, the possession of “military-grade” guns and 5.56 and 7.62 ammunition in the hands of civilians which can pierce wood, concrete, metal and body armour worn by police.

She disclosed incomplete statistics between 2016-2022 which show the quantity of guns and ammunition imported by gun dealers for “non-law enforcement purposes” skyrocketed with an all time high in 2020 of 57.2 million rounds, “almost 44 times the population” of TT.

The figures reveal in 2016 – 81 import permits were granted allowing 55 registered gun dealers to bring in 1,620 guns and 6,170,325 rounds of ammunition; in 2017 – 54 permits were approved allowing dealers to import 1,666 guns and 4,756,075 rounds of ammunition; in 2018 – some 91 permits were approved to import 5,422 guns and 2,642,022 rounds of ammunition; in 2019 – some 150 permits were granted to import 2, 750 guns and 8,357,785 rounds of ammunition; in 2020 approved import permits jumped to 306 allowing gun dealers to bring in 64,553 guns and 57,194,173 rounds of ammunition; in 2021 the number of import permits went down to 115 allowing dealers to bring in 43,557 and 18,899,000 rounds of ammunition, and in 2022 only 35 import permits were approved allowing dealers to bring in 2,701 and 8,676,746.

“Should criminal elements target any of these dealerships they would find a large store of firearms, ammunition and components/accessories which could seriously threaten the safety of the public and the stability of the country,” Harewood-Christopher said.

Information from the Customs and Excise Division for the six-year period to determine the actual number of guns and ammunition for “non-law enforcement purposes,” is yet to be provided to the police, according to Harewood-Christopher.

The CoP said the presence of “military-grade guns and ammunition” in the hands of criminals posed a serious challenge to the police but noted those types of guns “continue to enter the country legally and illegally.” She also raised concern about the number of rounds civilians were permitted to carry, some up to 1,000 rounds for each weapon, “creating an ease of access to ammunition and the risk that ammunition possessed lawfully may indeed be fuelling gun violence, or stockpiled unlawfully for more organised threats to national security.”

In the past, civilians were allowed to carry between 25-50 rounds of ammunition for their guns

Harewood-Christopher made another alarming claim where many people who were granted gun licences failed to have their guns “test-fired” at the Forensic Science Centre (FSC) so that a ballistic report of the weapon can be uploaded in the Integrated Ballistics Identification System (IBIS).

“This requirement facilitates the tracing of any projectiles found at a crime scene to the gun from which it was fired and is a critical element in solving crimes,” where guns are used in TT, the CoP said.

“The failure of FUL holders to have their licensed firearms test-fired is therefore a matter of serious concern for the TTPS and it lends itself to licensed firearms being involved in or ‘hired out’ for the commission of crimes with no risk of being detected. In this way, the TTPS has no way of knowing whether licensed firearms are being used for criminal purposes,” she said.

Information from the FSC revealed that “less than half of a half of all the firearms licensed under FULs and variations in this period were test-fired…this is a matter of serious concern given the virtual untraceability of these firearms if used in the commission of a crime,” she said.

Police records show in the last three years gun dealers “began applying for and receiving permission to import these high-powered firearms and ammunition for resale, and civilian FUL (firearm user’s licence) holders were permitted to carry them and to carry ammunition for them.”

She said prior to 2020, “only revolvers and auto-loading handguns (pistols), of calibres of .22 to .45 calibre, were issued to civilian FUL holders for personal protection.” For target sport shooting, small-bore (.22) and full-bore (.308/7.62mm) rifles have previously been held by individuals who are members of the rifle association or national representatives, she said.

Further, the risk was managed by not permitting those sports enthusiasts to keep ammunition for such weapons at home, she said.

Harewood-Christopher said while fully automatic weapons are prohibited under the firearms act, semi-automatic are permitted but they can be converted to fully automatic rifles by the use of conversion kits which gun dealers imported “in large numbers.” The conversion of the weapon, she said, can allow the gun to discharge “up to 600 rounds of ammunition per minute.”

The CoP said the records also showed civilians were granted variations of their permits to carry multiple guns, including “high-powered rifles” and it also disputed a suggestion those individuals were “active participants in target sport shooting.”

Statistics disclosed by Harewood-Christopher show the number of gun permits issued between 2016-2022 had a drastic hike under the tenure of former commissioner Griffith.

In some instances, variations to purchase multiple guns, including rifles, were approved within 24 hours or days without any evidence that the applicant was trained to use such weapons or if the person had an updated assessment of their mental state.

Harewood-Christopher said, “These are serious matters which are the subject of ongoing criminal investigations, and which demonstrate that the problem of gun violence in the country is not only occasioned by the presence and use of illegal firearms, but by licensed firearms. There is therefore a general need to know and account for all firearms and ammunition imported under permit into this country, and in circulation, before permitting additional firearms and ammunition to be imported.”

Griffith, under whose tenure the granting of gun licences exploded, has repeatedly said that none of the guns issued has been used to commit crimes.

Harewood-Christopher, who began acting as top cop on December 9, 2022, and was later appointed the substantive commissioner on February 3, said she has “adopted the position that before resuming the consideration of applicants for firearm import permits, it is necessary to properly account for all firearms and ammunition previously imported into the country under permits, so that the quantities and whereabouts of firearms and ammunition lawfully in circulation among the population can be known, before granting permission for additional firearms and ammunition to be imported.”

“The impact of firearms and ammunition in the country extends beyond the individual dealer and the eventual purchaser. It is not an ordinary supply to meet alleged demand. Firearms and ammunition are inherently dangerous goods and their widespread presence and availability in the country poses a risk to public safety and the overall stability of the country. I am particularly concerned about the risks which large quantities of ammunition pose. The presence of same has the potential to fuel gun violence in the country, both with the use of illegal firearms and those licensed under the (firearms) act. In recent times, increasing quantities of spent shells have been found on crime scenes suggesting that ammunition is easily accessible within the country.”