Handguns are weapons of choice for Caribbean criminals

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A pistol recovered by police during a raid in Penal in July 2021. –

WHILE Caribbean leaders are unified in their decision to ban assault weapons in their countries, a study on guns in the Caribbean showed criminals have an affinity for pistols rather than assault rifles.

The information was detailed in Weapons Compass, the Caribbean Firearms Study done by Anne-Séverine Fabre, Nicolas Florquin, Aaron Karp, and Matt Schroeder. The study was a collaborative effort between Small Arms Survey, a Switzerland-based organisation, and the Caribbean Implementation Agency for Crime and Security (Impacs).

Between January 2021 and December 2022 the investigators collected data from police, prisons, health and other officials in the Caribbean as well as interviewed inmates on gun convictions in Belize, Suriname, and TT. Financing for the project came from the German Federal Foreign Office.

“The types of illicit firearms circulating in the Caribbean are remarkably uniform across the region. Data compiled by the survey reveals that the vast majority of seized firearms are handguns, which account for as much as 88 per cent of the firearms in the data sets studied. Pistols make up most of the seized handguns – often by a considerable margin.”

The types of gun brands seized were Glock, Taurus, Beretta, and Smith & Wesson. The survey said automatic firearms were rarely seized in the Caribbean. Of the 2,390 seized firearms submitted for tracing through Interpol, the survey found that only 11 are described as automatic.

In TT, between 2017 and 2021, law enforcement agencies seized 3,325 hand guns, 2,309 pistols, 1,016 revolvers, 247 rifles, 408 shotguns, 83 sub-machine-gun guns, four air soft rifles and 20 unspecified firearms.

“The seizure data compiled from TT Police Service press releases only includes references to 12 automatic firearms, more than half of which were Glock pistols fitted with conversion devices. The rest consisted of four AK- and AR-15 pattern rifles, an M&P sub-machine gun, an unspecified ‘automatic rifle’, and an automatic Glock pistol (with no mention of a conversion device).”

While handguns are the choice of weapons for criminals, the survey highlighted a growing fear of assault weapons permeating the region. The survey said the make and models of the pistols seized are similar across the region with Haiti breaking from the norm to have a higher percentage of assault weapons.

“In August 2022, US officials warned of a notable increase in the trafficking of large-calibre rifles and other firearms to Haiti and the rest of the Caribbean. Examples highlighted by these officials included firearms more frequently associated with Mexican drug cartels than with criminals in the Caribbean, including .50 calibre rifles.”

National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds in April told Newsday the genesis of the proposal to ban weapons was a fear of mass shootings taking place. He added that Caribbean leaders found the proliferation of illegal guns and abuse of legal ones, generated a lot of trauma in their respective societies.

“Having regard to the difficulty that we see in neighbouring US, having mass shootings, the abuse of legal firearms and the use of illegal firearms have generated a situation where citizens in TT and the region are severely traumatised. Therefore the leaders of the Caribbean, who stated that their ambition is to maintain this region as a zone of peace, have collectively decided that they would impose a ban on assault weapons.”

Legal guns

The survey said: “For the 12 member states and associate members reporting total licensed owners, there was an average of 1.05 licensed owners per 100 residents. For the 18 reporting registered firearms, there was an average of 1.63 legally registered guns per 100 residents.”

Last year there were 10,550 licensed owners with 19,434 guns while in 2015 there were 42,385 households with firearms and 7,801 with registered firearms.

Three of the illegal guns and ammunition recovered by police during a raid in Couva recently. Photo courtesy TTPS

“These survey-derived civilian firearm totals suggest that illicit ownership outnumbers registered firearms, seen most clearly here in the examples of Barbados, Haiti, and TT.”

During a two-day anti-crime symposium in the region on April 17 and 18, Caribbean leaders agreed to ban assault weapons except for security forces and competitive shooters.

The proposed ban targets legal gun owners. Local gun owners and dealers said the suggestion to ban assault weapons, or automatic rifles, as they identified them, is an attack on them and are already banned in TT. They threatened to sue the state if their legally obtained semi-automatic rifles are taken away.

One such gun owner is CEO of 868 Tactical Dirk Barnes who said some semi-automatic rifles look menacing just as assault rifles but are not. He said the difference between an automatic rifle and a semi-automatic was the number of rounds each can let off with one pull of the trigger, but the function and capabilities of semi-automatic rifles are far lower than those of assault rifles.

Chapter 2 of the Firearms Act defines a prohibited weapon as any artillery or automatic firearm with only members of the armed forces and the director of the Forensic Science Centre being allowed to possess it.

In a prelude to the announcement of the ban, Finance Minister Colm Imbert in November last year, during his reading of the budget said the government needed to “tighten up the Firearms Act” to properly define an assault weapon.

He added that after doing his own research, he found a definition from the US of an assault weapon as “a semi-automatic weapon that can discharge a significant number of rounds (of ammunition) in a short period of time.”

Semi-automatic to automatic

Based on the data collected, conversion devices in the Caribbean is currently limited to certain states and territories including TT. These devices can turn semi-automatic guns to fully automatic, making a handgun – the preferred weapon for criminals in the Caribbean – an assault weapon.

“In 2020 and 2021, the TT Police Service seized at least 57 conversion devices. Examples of other Caribbean states and territories where conversion devices have been seized include Puerto Rico, St Lucia, and the US Virgin Islands,” the report said.

These conversion devices as well as ghost guns and privately made firearms (PMF) are growing concerns in the region. Between 2020 and 2021, US customs seized 158 parts for guns used to assemble PMF bound for TT.

Two guns which police claimed were recovered after they shot and killed two men in 2022. –

The report said PMFs have the same fire power as manufactured guns and ghost guns are weapons that are sold in parts and can be reassembled. Ghost guns are growing in popularity because of the ease at which they are assembled.

Tackling gun violence

The reports said law enforcement in the region battle with guns entering their territories after being disguised with ghost guns, which are difficult to detect as the parts are concealed separately.

While the US is a major source for illegal guns, the survey said the regional market is also a source for illicit firearms and ammunition in the Caribbean.

“While much effort has been put into firearms control at both the political and operational levels, firearms trafficking in the Caribbean and the specific characteristics of the markets fuelled by this trade have received little research attention. Crucially, a region-specific assessment of illicit small arms in the Caribbean is lacking, because existing research often lumps the region together with Latin America, obscuring the specific dynamics of illicit transfers, possession, and firearms use in the Caribbean. A critical information gap surrounds the mechanics of small arms trafficking both within the region itself and from source countries in other regions.”

Most of the inmates interviewed said their first gun was a pistol that came from outside their country, others said they got it locally and a few had assault weapons. Among 77 interviewed, nearly half reported being between 12 and 19 years and the majority saying they were 14 when they first gained access to an illegal firearm.

At the two-day symposium, regional leaders also unified their voices calling on the US to do more to stem the influx of illegal guns.

On March 9, the Prime Minister said TT was considering joining Mexico in taking legal action against US gun manufacturers for firearm-related offences in their countries.

The Bahamas, Antigua and Barbuda, St Vincent and the Grenadines, and TT are not part of Mexico’s US$10 billion lawsuit against seven US gun manufacturers and one wholesaler and distributor.

On April 17, Bahamas prime minister and Caricom chairman Philip Davis said the US should do more to stop the flow of illegal guns into the region.

He said then: “We have asked the US government and US-based gun manufacturers to co-operate with Caricom member states when it comes to identifying weapons purchased in the US, as a part of a wider effort to hold weapons dealers and traffickers accountable for the many lives lost to gun violence each year. We must call on our neighbours to the north to better police the trafficking of guns from the US to the Caribbean.”

A week later at the close of a three-day seminar on guns in the region hosted by the Caribbean Basin Security Institute (CBSI) and Impacs, US Ambassador to TT Candace Bond said the US, through CBSI, did a lot.

She said through CBSI, the US invested over US$832 million (between 2010 and 2023) in the Caribbean to reduce illicit firearms trafficking, increase public safety and security, and promote social justice.

Apart from financial support, which facilitated training programmes, and technical assistance, Bond said the US enacted laws to curb the flow of guns leaving the US to the region.

The survey said while a majority of guns seized in the region were traced back to the US, there are others that are intra-regionally smuggled.