Government Senator Natalie Campbell-Rodriques is adamant that the new Firearms Bill, which proposes stiffer penalties for gun crimes, will be a strong deterrent to curb the behaviour of criminals.
The Bill stipulates, among other things, a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years for individuals convicted of illegal possession of a firearm or stockpiling of three or more firearms or 50 or more rounds of ammunition.
Campbell-Rodriques made the declaration as she rebuffed Opposition spokesman on national security Senator Peter Bunting's assertion that harsher punishment alone is not a strong enough deterrent for perpetrators of gun crimes.
Bunting, who was making his contribution to the debate on the Firearms (Prohibition and Regulation) Act, 2022 in the Senate on Thursday, said focus should instead be placed on ensuring criminals are caught, arguing that criminals know very little about the sanctions for these offences and therefore would not be phased.
"It's important that we understand that this [Bill] is no silver bullet…we're not in all cases saying some of the penalties may not be more appropriate, but let us not fool ourselves into thinking that just by increasing the severity is going to have a meaningful impact on reducing our violent crime rate," he said.
Campbell-Rodriques, however, retorted that "a major deterrent to behaviour is harsh penalties.
"So, Senator Bunting, I disagree with you fundamentally that harsh measures will not help the situation. Tell that to the mothers who have been crying when their sons have been killed; tell that to the fathers crying when their daughters are held up at gun point," she said.
Campbell-Rodriques argued that actions must have consequences and that a system needs to be in place to let people with the tendency towards picking up a gun feel as though it is not worth it. The aim, she explained, is to change the risk-reward factor.
"If what you're getting when you use a firearm is a harsh penalty, you will think twice; there is no doubt about that — that's basic psychology," she stressed.
She admitted that though the Bill is not perfect, "it seeks to tighten the reins; it seeks to give law-abiding citizens breathing room to live without fear of gun crimes — that's what we're seeking to do here".
"This, the Firearms (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 2022, seeks to effectively deal with the proliferation, trade and use of firearms. This Bill marks, in my mind, a potential turning point in Jamaica. This is to be the start of a turn for Jamaica as a less violent society," she declared.
Describing the current wanton use of firearms in Jamaica as a crisis, Campbell-Rodriques argued that any country that does not exercise adequate control over the possession and use of firearms in the face of persistent gun violence is basically in breach of the Government's obligation to its citizens.
"Violence through the use of a firearm is a matter which directly affects the most fundamental human right, which is the right to life. So all our human rights are violated by the excessive use of firearms by criminals, and it is the responsibility of the Government to protect people and to uphold that human right — that right to life," she said.
Up to 80 per cent of the more than 1,200 murders committed each year in Jamaica are by the gun. More than 1,000 murders have been committed in Jamaica since the start of the year with continuing daily reports of homicides.
In the meantime, Campbell-Rodriques highlighted specific clauses of the Bill which she appreciated. She made note of Clause 58 3(d), which states that no firearm authorisation will be granted to a person who is charged with or detained in respect of an offence involving domestic violence.
"This is a step forward for not just lessening the numbers of persons who have guns who shouldn't, but it shows that women and the problems we face, they matter. You beat woman, you can't get a licensed firearm; if you beat men, you can't get a licensed firearm…I'm happy that [domestic violence] is being considered here," she said.
She also drew attention to Clause 102, which stipulates that a person who assaults, obstructs, hinders or resists or uses any threatening language to an authorised officer executing any function under this Act, commits an offence and shall be liable…to a fine not exceeding $1,000,000 or, on default of payment of that fine, to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one year.
"I'm highlighting this because…we sometimes turn on the news at 7:00 o'clock and we see where people are attacking the police for different things. Stop "bad up" the people doing their jobs to curb criminality in Jamaica…it is an offence to do so," she said.
She, however, queried Clause 85, which speaks to the cancellation of a firearm authorisation on the death of a holder.
"The Bill says that upon death, the licence is to be cancelled and notice must be given to the personal representative of the deceased…I'm asking whether the process for this will be included in the regulations, given I wonder how will the authority know who is the representative of the deceased and their location in order to carry out this section. So I'd love to hear from the team, through the minister [of national security] whether or not that is something that will come in the regulations," she questioned.
The new Firearms Bill will replace the 1976 Act, and is intended to modernise offences, penalties, and fines, to include mandatory minimum sentences, and generally provide a stronger deterrent to illegal importation and use of illegal and prohibited weapons.
The Bill also seeks to eliminate illegal possession, manufacture, trafficking, proliferation, and use of prohibited weapons, and provides for the management and regulation of the firearms industry through a robust licensing regime and national registry of firearms. Additionally, it addresses new threats posed by technological advancements, and enables the country to meet international treaty obligations.
The debate continues in the Senate on Friday where the Bill is expected to be approved. The Bill was passed in the House of Representatives on September 7.