There’s more to owning a gun than being able to point at a target and pull the trigger. A gun is a tool, Dirk Barnes explained, just like a hammer or a power drill, and if it is used incorrectly or irresponsibly, it can cause unnecessary and fatal damage. That’s why when people come into his store, 868 Tactical in Valsayn, he makes sure that potential gun owners understand that if they want to buy a gun, they need to prove they know how to use it.
Barnes is the owner of 868 Tactical, a firearms and firearm accessories retailer in South Valsayn. A retired major in the TT Defence Force whose responsibility included overseeing the army’s armoury, Barnes opened 868 Tactical in September. It’s a natural offshoot of his security and asset recovery firm, Air Support Tactical.
He is one of the newer players in the gun dealership trade as more people are investing in weapons to protect themselves and their property.
"In private security we found ourselves on the back side of the weapons systems (including what law enforcement was using). I recognised then that we needed to upgrade our systems so I wrote (the then acting police commissioner) Stephen Williams to apply to be a dealer myself because I realised a lot of the dealers here weren't familiar with the system I was looking for."
Acquiring a firearm dealership is not easy. The entire process for Barnes took about three years – from 2017 to May 2020. "There are a lot of checks and balances, obviously. They want to make sure the people given this privilege are not just the typical law-abiding citizen but someone who understands and would not be corrupted going forward, that they may not start filtering firearms to the underworld."
The process, he said, at least for him, started with the application, then a visit from police to the principals of the company, background checks – as far back as your whole family and criminal history – and scrutiny of documents and accounts. There's also a medical history evaluation and psychometric testing.
While waiting on approval, Barnes talked to people in or interested in the industry, including gun owners and potential gun owners who were looking for training or even basic advice on training and firearms.
Since 2015 he has been a lead safety officer at one of the local ranges and has trained quite a few people, as well as his own training and instructing from his Defence Force days.
"I've recognised one of the areas people don't get an opportunity to really engage in is firearms training. And that's why when we (got) this firearms dealership it also manifested to what we thought was a bigger responsibility, to provide that training and advice for people who want to buy (and properly use) a firearm."
868 Tactical shares a space with Air Support Tactical. The building is unassuming and looks more like a residence than a command centre, belying the power and lethality of the weaponry inside. It’s a perfect metaphor for Barnes’ approach to firearm use and safety.
“With guns, there is no ego. You check your ego. Because when you become a gun user your attitude needs to change. You should go from a hostile, macho personality into the most docile, non-confrontational person, because you have the ability to take a life. A firearm is not a dangerous thing. It is a force multiplier. If you are a person who is constantly aggressive you will get in trouble because you will use the tools in your aggression. That’s what bandits do.
“If you are a person who is well-trained, passive and observant, you will not get in trouble. And if danger and violence comes to you, you are able to delay that situation. You are able to put out violence with some magnitude because the tools that you have: your firearm, your training and your self-awareness will aid you,” he told Business Day recently.
Trinidad and Tobago doesn’t have a culture of gun-ownership like say, the US. Firearms licences need to be approved directly by the police commissioner (and, in a weird quirk of TT law, married applicants must also get approval from their spouse to own a firearm).
Barnes noted that since Gary Griffith’s installation to the post, the number of approvals has increased from 200 a year to 2,000. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into more reckless behaviour by gun owners. It’s that US appetite that’s causing a shortage in the (legal) TT firearm market.
“We haven’t had much time (since opening) to really look at the industry from an economic point of view, but from a gun sales perspective we do get constant sales. But that’s not what we focus on – we focus on a bunch of other products as well for other gun owners. And those accessories are what sell out. So, we brought in what we thought would be six months of inventory and in the first three weeks it was gone and since then we have been under the radar trying to get stuff back in because we really didn’t expect it,” Barnes said.
There’s a lot more demand for firearms than there’s product on the market, he said. “What’s happening right now is that for a lot of dealers – not me – there’s a backlog with orders from the US because of a lack of supply from manufacturers and distributors. So there’s a lot of back order because of what’s happening in the US where domestic demand is taking up all the inventory from domestic and even imported supply.”
Barnes has narrowed it down to three prevailing opinions on guns and gun use in TT. “There are gun owners, law enforcement and people who know nothing about firearms,” he said. Law enforcement’s attitude towards firearms is concern that people are getting injured and not being properly trained. “I also see them now recognising that more systems are coming in and they want to get involved – more of them are improving their training and getting involved in competitions, setting an example for safe use.”
Gun owners have also evolved. “The typical gun owner ten years ago wouldn’t go on a range or find it hard to spend $200 on a box of ammunition to upgrade their skills but what we are seeing now is a lot of them are doing more research. People come into the store and try to feel me out with things they’ve researched and when the realise that I know what they know, the relax and start to ask questions.”
Then there are the people who just don’t understand firearms at all and are afraid of them. “They are quite naive. When I see questions from people asking, ‘well why they didn’t shoot him in the leg?,’ it infuriates me because if you understand what a firearm does – I don’t have the ability to look at your knee, a moving target, and hit that two or three-inch target while it’s moving while the threat is engaging me similarly. I am not trained for that. I am trained to go after the biggest piece of mass and causing the most amount of bleeding and that means pumping that little 9 mm projectile into that person as much as possible until their body (shuts down).”
Greater awareness and responsibility by gun owns means that fears that greater numbers of firearm licences being granted will mean more incidents of accidental injuries have not happened, he noted. “You don’t see those types of incidents because what tends to happen is people don’t want to lose that gun because the first report (against a gun owner) made at a police station means, the police will be coming to grab your gun.”
While Barnes is the technical and tactical expert behind the business, his wife, Laurella, manages the operations. She’s often the one people see behind the counter when they come in to buy items.
“I think a lot of people don’t understand the mechanics behind either using a firearm or the responsibility of owning a firearm. I had a customer come in asking for a firearm for his wife to put in her purse. And I had to tell him no. If you get into an altercation and someone tries to rob you the first thing they try to grab from you as a woman is your purse. And then your licensed firearm is in the possession of a criminal.”
For her, being married to a soldier and firearms specialists meant she had to develop a certain comfort level with guns. “One of our first dates he took me on was to a gun range,” she laughed. And now she’s also proficient in firearms use and carries one with her when going out.
“I think not many women understand why it’s necessary to have one and what we are trying to do here is give that education. That as a female that yes you can carry safety, especially as a mother for your safety and the safety of your children.”
Training children from early on to understand and respect firearms is also important, she said. The couple has two young children whom they’ve already started training and educating about firearm safety.
Said Barnes: “Our son is on the autism spectrum. And we also have a young daughter. What we have had to do with him has taught us what is important with gun safety around children because children will always be curious. It’s not practical to keep your gun locked away in a safe. You have to always be ready. A home invasion can happen at any time and you won’t always have time to run to a safe, figure out a combination and grab your gun. You and your spouse both need to be able to use that gun effectively. Because chances are that home invader will be coming for you.
“The question is how to get children not to play or interfere with a gun that is loaded or chambered. And to do that, you have to feed their curiosity. You don’t hide it from them and have them wondering what is that and why they can’t play with it. Expose them from young. Let them hold it, feel how heavy it is and know what it is for. Let them understand the basic operation – but also reiterate to them that this is dangerous. Get them accustomed to that and understand that they can get hurt.”
Grown-ups also need guidance. Shooting a gun is definitely not like in the movies. “Competency is really based on the student,” Barnes said. Some people baulk at that, he noted, especially since there may be some places and instructors that claim only one lesson is necessary. The five sessions are five two-hour long sessions using various tactical and technological tools (like simulators) and equipment to help refine aim and overall posture and technique – even before setting foot on a gun range. “So, you learn to shoot a gun effectively and competently.”