Under the common law licensed firearm holders can only use their weapons in cases where they have evidence of a demonstrable threat of bodily harm, according to House Speaker and attorney Raphael Trotman.
Trotman told Stabroek News that the law was clear on the issue, explaining that the discharging of a weapon was legally acceptable when “a person has threatened you but has demonstrated a capacity to cause you bodily harm… the person may be armed with a stick, a firearm, a knife or something like that.”
He said that it was not enough cause to feel threatened, especially if the person issuing the threat was not armed or was clearly not capable at the said time of causing bodily harm. He added that “you are expected to avoid contact, not to confront; that is the last resort.”
According to Trotman, the “human element” has manipulated the understanding of the law but it is the responsibility of law enforcement to ensure that licensed firearm holders know that they are ultimately only responsible for themselves and their own individual safety.
“I can give you the rule but you have to add in human nature. People are more afraid and some people feel a sense of social responsibility,” he said.
“People are afraid and they have every right to be because there has been an increase in crimes and they appear to be random,” he said, and as a result “a percentage of people will not intervene but others will feel like they cannot just stand by.”
He was speaking in relation to many licensed firearm holders who feel the need to protect their immediate families, extended families and their communities.
Trotman said that Guyana has seen a series of cases involving vigilantism which is becoming more pervasive in communities because many citizens have lost faith in the protective capacity of the Guyana Police Force.
“This aspect of vigilantism justice in Guyana is really a failure of the security forces and [the] committed feel they have to be their own protectors because the otherwise lawful forces are failing to offer protection,” he noted.
He cited the murders of Alfred Munroe by six men in Manchester Village Corentyne in May, after Munroe was suspected of robbing a store; and Nigel Lowe, who was beaten and tied to a utility pole by Sophia residents after being accused of stealing. The two murders occurred within days of each other.
Inability to meet challenges
Trotman said that while licensed firearm holders are given a weapon that can legally be used for their own protection, the apprehension of any person suspected of committing a crime is the burden of the lawful security forces. He said that the police had a responsibility to make this pellucid. Trotman noted than he did not want to “condemn” the remarks made by the acting Police Commissioner Leroy Brumell two Sundays ago, when he called on communities to take back control using force. Instead, Trotman observed that Brumell “has come under some pressure recently to get the job done” but said his call was “an admission at this point that the police force is struggling to meet the challenges of the crime; an inability to meet the present challenges.”
At a community outreach at Meten-Meer-Zorg, Brumell suggested that licensed firearm holders had a responsibility to protect their communities. Brumell stated that “I expect that firearm holder don’t be selfish in their communities… I expect them to come forward.”
During the outreach, various licensed firearm holders had given various scenarios in which they may use their weapon, with many of them noting that they would be willing to discharge their weapons if they thought their neighbours were threatened and not while in their home or on their own property.
Trotman noted that there is “brazenness” among criminals, who perceive communities and citizens to be weak and as a result licensed firearm holders and community policing groups will begin to function on high anxiety. He said that the upsurge in serious crime and random deaths would also see an increase in vigilantism if people felt insecure. “The more people get a sense that someone can come into your home and people can be murdered then we have a larger issue,” he argued.
Trotman recalled a point in time that licensed firearm holders could qualify to be supernumerary constables. He explained that they were given special privileges and a badge and in areas where there was no police presence or little presence, these constables worked very much like marshals. Trotman noted that along with community policing groups, who only have the power of citizens’ arrest, supernumerary constables could be reinstated. With Brumell calling on licensed firearm holders to protect their communities, reinstating supernumerary constables could ensure that persons acting in that capacity could be further protected under the law.
Trotman added that for community policing organisations, their roles and functions had to be fully outlined and the police force may need to draft rules and regulations for the various policing organisations, including neighbourhood watches.
While numerous deaths have occurred police are not inclined to charge licensed firearm holders who ultimately discharge their weapons on their property. Earlier in April of this year, licensed firearm holder Andre Forrester happened upon an intruder in his Tuschen, East Bank Essequibo home who was armed with a crowbar. He had apparently told the intruder that he was armed and would discharge his weapon. Forrester had reported that the intruder, James Williams, had ignored his requests. Williams was subsequently shot twice and pronounced dead at Leonora Cottage Hospital. Forrester has not been charged.