The Jeff Cumberbatch Column – The Guns of January
Barbadians might be forgiven for thinking that our island in recent weeks has been transformed into some latter-day Caribbean Dodge City or Tombstone Territory, given the alarming incidence of crimes involving the use of firearms. It is disconcerting enough when the offence involves mere unlawful possession, although, if one is to judge from the newspaper photograph of one such weapon, preparations for an internecine civil war or a serious public assault by one group or other might already be substantially underway. This may be scary enough; however, when there eventuates the scenario of an innocent bystander’s life becoming the collateral damage of some unfriendly fire, the situation becomes even more terrifying.
Despite the populist diagnoses of this spate of gun violence, ranging from scarcely veiled partisan discourses on the degree of the contribution of the state of the economy and, by extension, depending on the speaker’s political allegiance, the indirect responsibility or non-responsibility of the governing administration for the current state of affairs; to the so-termed “slap-on-the-wrist” approach of the magistracy and judiciary to sentencing offenders that, as popular wisdom would have it, contributes immeasurably to all criminality in Barbados, the problem seems intractable. There have been more broad hints than one in the public domain during the last week that some aspects of Sharia law may not be that bad after all.
Last week’s revelation from the acting Commissioner of Police, Mr Tyrone Griffith, of the police suspicion (he put it no higher than that) that negligently or criminally inadequate oversight by local customs officers of incoming cargo is a major contributor to the presence of illegal firearms in this country was always going to set the cat among the pigeons in a jurisdiction where such sweeping generalisations are more than likely to raise the hackles and much otherwise of all the members of the class of individuals at whom fingers are pointed.
As to be expected, there is a report in another section of the press this morning (Saturday) that customs officers are “hopping mad” and their representatives “outraged” and befuddled at what has been reasonably interpreted as a generalised calumny on all customs officers. Of course, I do not believe that this defamation was intended by the acting Commissioner, but it would have satisfied the requirements for actionability in the courts had he been any more particular in his assertions. Indeed, as I propose to tell the students in the law of Torts II lectures in a few weeks, when a wide class of individuals is impugned by a statement, no member of that class may sue successfully for defamation unless he or she is able to establish that there is something in the statement or the small size of the group that would lead the ordinary listener or reader reasonably to consider that the claimant was being referred to.
While this is the strict legal position, it is at least doubtful whether the customs officers would be detracted by such a technical consideration. However, given that it would have been both defamatory and impolitic for the acting Commissioner to be any more specific in this context, there is necessarily now an impasse between the two entities to be judged in the court of public opinion. There, the issues to be determined are whether the acting Commissioner was right to have made public the police suspicion without there having been at least the arrest and charge of one officer, and whether the customs officers are not being overly sensitive, given the allure of an argument that a proliferation of weapons in the island must include at least a number that were imported through the lawful ports of entry.
The workers’ representatives are nothing if not adamant that the Commissioner’s statements were more than unfortunate. While the more representative of these organisations, the National Union of Public Workers [NUPW], has termed them as “inflammatory, without basis” and serving only “to tarnish the reputations and integrity of all customs officers”, Mr Caswell Franklyn, the leader of the Unity Workers’ Union, argues that the police force was “more responsible for interdicting weapons than Customs given its superior facilities and training…”
What may be equally regrettable is the appearance of a public spat between these two governmental entities that are placed in the forefront of the interception of contraband into the jurisdiction. At a time when there are already publicly expressed fears that the interdiction of drugs, despite reports of periodic substantial seizures, is barely effective, if at all, in stemming the available local supply, any fissure in the scheme of co-operation between these agencies could scarcely be in the public interest.
Perhaps it may be that guns have become the new controlled narcotic substance and thus their imported presence here, like that of the latter, is inevitable. For the ordinary Barbadian, this may be a future too terrible to contemplate. A combination of astute political leadership, the committed co-operation of the responsible authorities and judicious parenting would serve us all in good stead to alleviate the problem.
Endnote: To reinforce my thesis of a few weeks ago that many of the issues arising for debate in the local public forum are akin to nothing if not recurring decimals, I have chosen today to reuse a column first published in this space on August 22 2015 as The guns of August. The title has obviously been changed to reflect the contemporary discourse. Alas, little else has in this regard.