Jamaica Farewell

The consequences of gun prohibition.

By Dave Kopel, Paul Gallant & Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute. Kopel's book The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? includes a chapter on Jamaica.

September 10, 2001 10:35 a.m., National Review Online. More by Kopel on Jamaican gun control.

"Down the way where the nights are gay, and the sun shines daily on the mountain top, I took a trip on a sailing ship, and when I reached Jamaica I made a stop."

Back in the fifties when Harry Belafonte sang "Jamaica Farewell" (written by Lord Burgess), he lamented, "My heart is down, my head is spinning around. I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town." Then, a tourist in Kingston heard "Sounds of laughter everywhere." Today, the tourists are long gone from Kingston, and the defining sound of Jamaica's capital is gunfire.

The latest round of trouble started on July 7 when a pre-dawn police raid went sour. On July 11, England's Guardian painted a grim picture of paradise lost: "Tanks and troops in armoured cars patrolled the streets of parts of Kingston last night as the Jamaican government struggled to restore order..." By the time the shooting was over, police and soldiers had "fired 10,000 rounds, recovered no guns and found no criminals, but slaughtered men, women, children, dogs, a cat and a goat in Tivoli Gardens...."

Jamaica's major newspaper, the Gleaner, painted another picture, of financial ruin staring Jamaica in the face: "The disturbance...received widespread international attention...and already some hoteliers are reporting a high level of cancellation." Ed Bartlett, opposition spokesperson on tourism, commented that "crime and violence are threatening to destroy the sector. More than anything else, they have served to tarnish the country's image overseas and as the Tourism Minister rightly stated, what we are now promoting is damaged goods."

But unwelcome publicity isn't new to Jamaica, because of rampant crime, out-of-control police, and the consequences of gun prohibition.

Probably in no other country is the devastation caused by restrictive firearm laws more evident than it is in Jamaica. Much of the criminality present today can be traced directly back to the Gun Court Act of 1974, intended to "take guns off the streets, out of the hands of criminals, and to lock up and keep gunmen away from decent society."

Instead, it has accomplished exactly the opposite. The Gun Court took guns only out of the hands of Jamaica's law-abiding, leaving them at the mercy of the criminals and the state. The abject failure of the Gun Court Act to achieve its stated purpose was pointed out in the Gleaner on February 1: "Twenty-seven years after the Gun Court was established as a division of the criminal justice system illegal guns remain a plague on society."

Today in Jamaica, easily acquired black-market guns have now largely replaced lawfully acquired guns. For a price, a wide variety of choice of guns are available.

While it's a simple matter to get hold of a gun through illegal channels, legal acquisition is an entirely different matter. In a guest appearance at a recent local chamber of commerce meeting, Police Commissioner Francis Forbes addressed "the problem faced by both security firms and law-abiding citizens in obtaining firearms, users permit and licenses." Reported the Gleaner, "The Commissioner replied that there are procedures which must be rigorously followed in granting firearm licenses...He appealed to persons experiencing delays to be patient as the Force has to be satisfied that such persons are worthy permit holders."

"Worthy permit holders"? Few Jamaicans appear to have sufficient funds or the desire to purchase enough "worthiness" to qualify. It's much easier to purchase a gun on the black market, or build one from scratch, than to satisfy a bureaucrat who's determined to find you "unworthy." Even before the 1974 law, the Jamaican gun licensing system was run so that only about 1% of the population was "worthy" enough to own a gun.

By perverting the definition of what constitutes "criminal" behavior, the Jamaican government has created a society predominated by criminals.

Much of the violence stems from the often violent rivalry between Jamaica's two major political parties — the People's National Party (PNP), and the opposition Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) — dating back to the 1970s. As the Associated Press noted, "Politicians disavow ties to Jamaica's ruthless gangs, but their histories are intertwined. The fearsome gang culture developed...when politicians armed criminals to intimidate voters as the two main parties fought for supremacy. The gangs, made financially independent by the drug trade, now have evolved into a virtually uncontrollable force."

Jamaica's murder rate has long been among the world's highest, lagging only behind South Africa and Brazil according to current U.N. estimates. While rising crime rates were used to justify the Gun Court Act and a variety of other repressive laws, crime today is skyrocketing out of sight. The problem has been the focus of ten comprehensive studies and recommendations since 1976, the latest one released this year.

Jamaica's police are a big part of the problem. Jamaica's rate of lethal police shootings is among the highest in the world. At 5.38 per 100,000 population (vs. about 0.11 for the U.S.), that's higher than the overall homicide rate in many American states, and in most European nations.

Joining the Jamaica Constabulary Force is tantamount to obtaining a license to kill. Of every two police officers who spend 25 years on active duty in Jamaica, one of them is destined to kill in the line of duty, suffering no legal or employment repercussions.

Contrast that with the aftermath of a questionable fatal shooting here in the US: an officer might lose his gun and badge, be sent to jail, be sued by the federal government for the deprivation of the victim's civil rights, or face trial for a wrongful death. Not uncommonly, it marks the end of a career.

The problem was exemplified when, in a prelude to July's public relations debacle, more than 40 police and soldiers swooped down on a house in Braeton during the pre-dawn hours of March 14, and shot dead 7 men, all purported gang members. The police account is that they identified themselves as officers and asked the occupants to come out, but were greeted by gunfire. Relatives and residents disputed that, calling the raid a "cold-blooded killing", pointing out that not one of the lawmen was bruised or injured. The high percentage of fatal headshots to the victims described in the post-mortem report strongly suggested that the police action amounted to seven assassinations. Former Prime Minister Edward Seaga called Braeton an act of state terrorism.

Jamaica's violent side has taken a heavy toll. The economic lifeline of Jamaica is tourism, with the island attracting nearly one million visitors each year. In the 1970s and 1980s, tourists flocked to places like Negril, Ocho Rios, and Montego Bay, ignoring the turf wars going on several hours away in Kingston.

But no longer. The latest outburst of violence came with a price tag estimated at $14 billion in lost tourism revenue. Frederick March, area chairman for the Jamaica Hotel and Tourist Association, warned that the industry, already in dire straits, can not afford to take another beating. As March pointed out, Jamaica's image overseas is problematic and travelers fear for their safety.

Mark Kerr-Jarrett, President of the Montego Bay Chamber of Commerce, agreed: "Crime and tourism do not go hand in hand and I am afraid that if the crime rate continues to climb like this then we are really in for some very rough times."

The problem is exacerbated by tourist harassment. The April 1, 2001 Gleaner noted that "Jamaica will lose an estimated $1 billion annually because of two cruise lines' decisions to redeploy several of their vessels from Ocho Rios to other destinations." The experience of American Matt Sauer in trying to retrieve his camera from a tour guide at one of Jamaica's waterfall attractions exemplified the problem. Before venturing up the falls, guides encourage tourists to leave their cameras behind, and one goes around collecting them. Sauer likened the experience to "a hostage trying to negotiate [his] own release." Said Sauer, "We were told on the ship to expect this sort of thing, but until you get here one will not fully understand the magnitude of what is happening here."

Said another American tourist, Gary Ghems, "This is a wonderful attraction, easily the best of its kind in the Caribbean. However, what is happening here is a major turn-off for a lot of visitors...This is simply an elaborate scam, that maybe the authorities need to take a look at."

Has Jamaica's downward spiral reached the point of no return? Can anything turn Jamaica around, or is it just a nation with nowhere else to go but further down?

When you're going to hell in a handbasket, reversing course is usually a good idea, and the Jamaican government has recognized this with regard to its drug policy: in August, it began to consider re-legalizing marijuana, which is currently used by about 20% of Jamaica's population (including Rastafarians, for whom it is a sacrament).

Many more policy reversals are needed. The government has already acknowledged that drug prohibition is a failure, that the 1974 anti-drug laws (enacted at the behest of the Nixon administration) have devastated civil liberties, enriched gangs, and made Jamaica more violent. The main obstacle to the repeal of Jamaica's destructive laws appears to be opposition from the U.S. government.

Sociologist Peter Espeut put forth a good recommendation: "The police force as presently constituted seems unable (or unwilling) to cleanse itself, and the governments of both parties seem to lack the political will or the testosterone to step in and make the necessary changes." Pointing out that "the large number of questionable police killings suggests that there are a large number of police killers," Espeut advised abolishing the Jamaica Constabulary Force, and establishing a Police Service.

With regard to firearms, Jamaica's government remains wedded to its failures. At the recent United Nations conference on small arms, Jamaica's representative proposed exporting his country's toxic policy, as he urged nations which manufacture arms to reduce their output to a level sufficient only to supply government agents.

But because Jamaica's antigun laws haven't protected the Jamaican people, and because the police won't protect the Jamaican people, the Jamaican government lacks any plausible moral authority to deprive its citizens of the means of self-defense. Kingston has degenerated to the Hobbesian nightmare of a war of all against all, aggravated by the government supplying arms to one group of gangs (the police) and enriching other gangs (through drug prohibition laws that provide the gangs with their lucrative trade).

Currently, the Jamaican parliament is dithering over a new "Offensive Weapons Act" that would impose still more controls on "anything that can be manipulated by the hand of man." The country would be a lot safer if, instead, parliament enacted a Vermont-style concealed gun carry law — allowing anyone without a criminal record to carry a firearm for lawful protection. No police permit needed. The crime rate would plunge as defenseless victims become armed prey, willing and able to fight back without fear of government retribution for exercising the fundamental human right of self-defense.

Reduce crime, and the tourist industry will begin to recover, even in Kingston. Repealing all the harmful antigun laws, besides saving the lives of many Jamaicans, could also spawn a whole new tourist industry.

Far fetched? Gun-related tourism is already enriching Guam, which does a roaring business from Japanese tourists seeking a go at rented guns. The now-closed Diamond Head Gun Club in Waikiki, Hawaii, used to draw Japanese who were willing to pay for the sheer fun of shooting a gun. In 1997, manager Daniel Perez-Nava told reporters that the majority of its customers came from tourist groups visiting the island from other countries. "These people have flown halfway across the Pacific for a chance to shoot 52 rounds of 22 caliber ammunition. For some of them, it will be the only time in their lives they will have an opportunity to shoot a real gun because of the gun controls in their country...."

If tourists will fly to Guam just to shoot, they would certainly fly to Jamaica for the same pleasure — Jamaica being larger and more beautiful than Guam. In 2000, approximately 135,000 Britons visited Jamaica. Why not offer tourists from countries like Great Britain what they can't get back home?

Even American tourists would come to Jamaica for shooting action hard to come by in the States, like firing a fully automatic gun (legal in most states, but not in some, such as New York), or shooting an exotic movie gun from Robocop.

Cambodia is pursuing just such a tourist strategy. At the Pkorlan Club Shooting Range near Phnom Penh, tourists pay to shoot automatic rifles — even including the M60 machine gun — and to throw hand grenades. The cost is a $1 per bullet, which adds up very, very fast when one is shooting a machine gun. But as a reporter from the Toronto Globe and Mail, who had no previous shooting experience, explained, "you cannot help but be thrilled by such a visceral experience." (Christopher Vedelago, "'Do not point at anything you are not willing to shoot': The transformation from happy tourist to grenade-lobbing military warrior is easy in Cambodia. Just go to the Pkorlan Club Shooting Range," The Globe and Mail, Aug. 18, 2001, p. T3).

Or…Jamaica could continue to pass more laws that don't work, insist that citizens trust the police to take care of protecting them, and hope that 27 years of failed repression will somehow lead to success in the 28th, 29th, or the 30th year, when the necessary quantity of civil-liberties destruction is finally achieved.

Should Jamaica choose the latter course, the gun prohibition and drug prohibition bureaucracies at the United Nations stand ready and eager to help. But when this tack fails, Jamaica will find itself without a legitimate government, for, as Hobbes explained: "The Obligation of Subjects to the Sovereign is understood to last as long, and no longer, than the power lasts, by which he is able to protect them. For the right men have by Nature to protect themselves, when none else can protect them, can by no Covenant be relinquished." (Leviathan, ch. 21).

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