Jamaican War Zone

An island of intoxicative beauty? Try again, mon.

By Dave Kopel, author of The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies?, Dr. Paul Gallant, & Dr. Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute

10/30/00 1:40 p.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Jamaican gun control.

"Enveloped in lush foliage, skirted by exquisite beaches, and caressed by the sea, Jamaica is an island of intoxicative beauty. But splendid scenery isn't the island's only asset — Jamaica is alive with music, art, and culture as well."

While you'd never know it from the travel brochure, the Jamaica described above is only a mirage. Don't expect to find out about the real Jamaica from the Jamaican Embassy, either — they'll deny they even have the crime figures available.

An editorial in the nation's leading newspaper, the Jamaica Gleaner, told the story in just one word: "Frightening!" It went on to note that "criminal violence has soared to a new level as gunmen target policemen with a brazen arrogance that is frightening...and others have been wounded in gun battles which approached the dimensions of urban warfare."

Delroy Chuck, an opposition member of Parliament and attorney, lamented the current state of his country: "If crime is a symptom, or measure, of social decay then we are declining even faster than we realize. The criminal elements in our midst are increasing and have become more heartless, brutish, and brazen than ever before."

The real Jamaica is no idyllic island paradise. It is a hell-hole caught in the terminal stage of what some euphemistically call "gun-control," where the life of a whole people is literally being squeezed out of it like a vise; one end of the vise is the government, the other is the criminals, and people are being crushed in-between.

Caught in the crossfire are Jamaica's disarmed citizens. On April 27, 2000, a 5-hour gun battle erupted between Jamaica's security forces, police, and gunmen, killing one police officer, another man, and injuring 3 others. And on September 28, 2000, a running gun battle between police and a gunman transformed sections of downtown Kingston into a "ghost town," injuring a police constable and three others.

Police protection? In Jamaica that means the unfulfilled need for protection from the police. A story in the Gleaner detailed a report by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labour which found that "Jamaican police lead by far their Caribbean and Latin American counterparts in civilian killings, which have been deemed 'extra-judicial' or killing without authorisation…"

Last Tuesday, people in Central Kingston poured onto the streets to protest a cold-blooded execution by the police. The police responded with bullets and tear gas. The police claimed that their killing of a local "don" came after a gun battle, and they found a 9mm pistol on his body. A tearful teenage girl who said she saw the killing contradicted the police story. She claimed that the police entered the man's yard and shot him in cold blood, continuing to pump bullets into his corpse: "The police kick weh him foot and shoot him when him deh pon the ground."

Delroy Chuck explained:

The invidiously high level of police killings continue to attract the attention of international human rights organizations...The records actually show that almost three citizens are killed by the police weekly. [These killings are] a major cause of protest and demonstrations from residents and eyewitnesses who allege police brutality, gross injustice and blatant criminality.

The problem is long-standing, and is aggravated by Jamaica's gun prohibition laws. The human-rights group Americas Watch analyzed Jamaican homicides in the early 1980s.  About a third of homicides in those years were committed by the police. Indeed, in some years the rate of Jamaicans killed by police was higher than the rate of Americans killed by anyone. Although the police usually reported that the killings took place in a shoot-out with the victims, Americas Watch contends that the police were lying.  Many of those killings, the human rights group said, were deliberate killings of personal enemies of particular policemen.

Even the slayings of genuine criminal suspects were often not in shoot-outs. Rather, they were deliberate police executions; innocent bystanders or people mistaken for the criminal suspect were frequently murdered. The public fervor over guns — initiated by the middle-class press and augmented by the government — provided a handy excuse for homicidal police officers. The statement that a victim of police homicide had been killed in a shoot-out was readily accepted without investigation, even when no gun was recovered from the victim. 

The excesses of police violence, claimed Americas Watch, drove Jamaica to new heights of violence, because the police example legitimated violence in the eyes of both criminals and ordinary citizens. Bob Marley's partly autobiographical 1973 song "I Shot the Sheriff" tells the story of a young man on the run. "I shot the sheriff, but I swear it was in self-defense."

Americans have been brainwashed into believing that their schools are rife with violence. But real violence in Jamaican schools occurs "with regularity" as teens use knives to settle their day-to-day differences, and schools there have been forced to rely increasingly on police and private security guards "to secure their compounds."

Even those measures and 8-foot walls aren't enough to keep the violence out. Things have gotten so bad in Jamaican schools that one principal was recently forced to suspend 500 male students at one time for "disciplinary reasons" — like kicking girls to the point where they had to be hospitalized.

Now if this was America, the solution — or at least a distraction from the real problems — would be an easy one: more gun laws. But Jamaica played that card out when it replaced an already-restrictive gun licensing system with the Firearms Act and the Gun Court Act of 1974. The Acts provided for gun confiscation, house-to-house searches, incommunicado detention, secret trials, warrantless searches and seizures, and mandatory lifetime prison sentences for the possession of even a single bullet. The main designer of the Gun Court Act was the president of the World Federation for Mental Health, Dr. Michael Beaubrun. He insisted that the Gun Court was a scientifically designed approach to behavioral change.

One American tourist, who borrowed an uncle's suitcase, which happened to contain a single .22-caliber round, was saved from life in prison only by the strong intervention of the American Embassy.

Delroy Chuck writes that while gun prohibition (technically, an extremely restrictive licensing system) was "meant to take guns off the streets, out of the hands of criminals, and to lock up and keep gunmen away from decent society," the laws had no such effect. Instead, prohibition "has taken guns out of the hands of law-abiding, defenceless citizens and made gunmen the kingpins of their communities. Decent citizens in inner city communities have great difficulty getting gun licenses or keeping lawful guns for their own protection. The violent young men who possess and control the illegal guns and offer protection to their communities become their heroes and protectors and are the main beneficiaries of the draconian legislation." Behavioral change indeed.

Mr. Chuck argues:

In a rotten society, in which the criminals have the upper hand, in which the security forces are unable to give adequate protection, it is simply wrong to disarm our citizens and leave them without the means to defend themselves. I think the authorities should, in fact, be examining alternatives and the better use of guns and weapons by law-abiding citizens as a means of self-defence and protection and, ultimately, to let criminals get their just desert, instead of the other way around.

The Gun Court Act created a real mess for Jamaicans. In fact, violent crime rose so rapidly afterwards, that many Jamaicans simply fled their country.

A quarter of a century of prohibitory gun laws, suppressions of other civil liberties in order to enforce the gun laws, wars on ganja, neo-colonial U.S. intervention in the ganja wars, militarized law enforcement at every level, policemen being granted a license to murder, mandatory life sentences for criminals not on political payrolls, destruction of due process, and demonization of every possible scapegoat (especially of civil libertarians and gun-rights advocates) have miserably failed to make Jamaica safer. So what's a government to do next? Why, pass an "Offensive Weapons Act", of course!

According to this new proposal, "offensive weapon" means "any article made or adapted for use for causing injury to the person or which is intended by the person having such article with him to cause such injury" in "public places." Mind you, this would not only mean the outlawing of knives or other items commonly considered weapons, but also ice picks, screwdrivers, scissors, a stick, or any pointed object. You name it — the possibilities are endless!

As for "public places", these include "every highway, road or other passageway, court, parade, wharf, school premises, public garden, open space or any place used for the purposes of sports and games, and any other place or premises to which, at the material time, the public has access."

Those suspected of violation of the Offensive Weapons Act would be subject to search and arrest without warrant, a fine of up to $4,000, and a jail term up to 4 months, and the accused would have to go to court to give a "reasonable excuse why he had the object on him." This reversal of the burden of proof is common with many weapons control laws, including the gun laws in New York State.

Britain and Australia are also enacting similar restriction on sharp objects and their owners, although British and Australian crime problems (while much worse than in earlier decades when the right to arms was respected) are not so bad as Jamaica's.

Will Jamaica's new Offensive Weapons Act help? Delroy Chuck thinks not:

What they [our laws] have done, inadvertently perhaps, is to disarm most of the law-abiding members of the society, whilst the young warriors in many inner city communities freely and openly carry their guns to create mayhem and to demand respect from cowering females, fearful peers, and elderly folks. The laws have empowered the gangsters and left law-abiding citizens defenceless, and shortly we will attempt to carry this madness even further as the government seeks to enact the Offensive Weapons (prohibition) Act.

Delroy Chuck is not a voice in the wilderness. While the Firearms Act and Gun Court Act had over 80% public support when enacted, substantial opposition arose within half a year, and has been prominent ever since. The American-backed Edward Seaga and his Jamaica Labour Party won the 1980 election promising to repeal the gun laws, but instead used the laws to carry out vendettas against political opponents.

Economic growth might provide some relief from the crime problem, but growth is rendered difficult by the government's continued adherence to its failed crime policies. Sameer Younis, president of the Jamaica Manufacturers Association, charged that the greatest impediment to growth in all sectors is the level of crime and violence in the country.

Webster Edwards, who heads a program for inner-city youths, elaborated on that in an op-ed in the Gleaner:

People involved in business have repeatedly attested to the fact that crime is the greatest impediment to production and productivity. It manifests itself in fear, in the security costs which continue to grow with each passing year, and lost opportunities for our citizens. There are some businesses which would consider putting on a third shift, but for the incidence of fear which has now taken a stranglehold on the citizens of this country.

American criminologist William Calathes, the most sophisticated scholar of Jamaica's gun polices, writes: "it is readily apparent that the Gun Court Act did not succeed in lowering the rate of firearm-related crime." He notes that "the public was expected to believe in the deterrent potential of the Act while the political parties continued to use firearm violence, and the Act itself, for their own political purposes."

Calathes argues that Jamaica faced "contradictions between relatively developed political tendencies and relatively backwards economic forces." The government reconciled the contradiction by using "highly developed skills of political management in propagating myths of the deterrent value of an oppressive piece of criminal legislation."

This Jamaican process of political management with gun control myths is also at work in the United States. Within hours after Columbine, President Clinton dispatched pollsters and convened focus groups to determine which gun laws to start pushing — even though nothing Clinton proposed could have had any possibility of preventing Columbine.

Britain and Australia show us the intermediate stages, and Jamaica shows us the terminal stage, of failing to stop the cancerous use of "gun control" as a cynical tool of political management. Here in the U.S., Americans are being pressured into submitting to allegedly "reasonable" and "common-sense" gun laws as the cure for violent crime. If you want your hometown to be more like Kingston, Jamaica, you'll support these laws.

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