- Firearms dealers and marksmen are asking the government not to be quick to ban certain firearms without stakeholder consultation.
They suggested the government focus on seizing illegal firearms, since legal weapons were not being used in crime. And, if they were, they would be easily traced because of the forensic database of all legal guns.
They were speaking in the wake of the Prime Minister's statement on April 18, after a regional anti-crime symposium at the Hyatt Regency in Port of Spain, that Caricom leaders were moving to ban “assault weapons” from holders of firearms licences except for security forces and competitive shooters.
Those in the sport shooting arena also expressed concern over 7.62 mm ammunition being included in the government’s definition of assault weapon, even though the sport was mentioned as an exception.
One of the biggest issue firearms users have with the statements of government officials is that “assault weapon” has no consistent definition. In fact, there are different definitions in different jurisdictions, especially in the US, and the term is not used among weapons manufacturers.
Two certified firearms instructors with MH Tactical Response Group explain that while the Firearms Act regulates firearms, it does not speak to sport shooting. They said the sport is recognised in the country and people have been sent abroad to represent TT in the sport at the Olympics qualifiers and other regional and international competitions, but the law did not cover it.
Robert Couri, an official judge for Olympic shooting with the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF), and Gifford Wright, retired fleet chief petty officer with the Coast Guard and a national pistol-calibre carbine (PCC) champion, are also concerned about the terms government officials are using. They said there is no such thing as an “assault weapon.”
Couri said it is a term coined to frighten people who do not know about firearms and, in his opinion, it should only be used for fully automatic firearms, because anything could be an “assault weapon” if it is used to physically attack someone.
Agreeing with the Britannica definition, he said a semi-automatic rifle could only be called an assault rifle if the firearm has a selector to switch it to automatic mode. But he stressed that many firearms resemble assault rifles but are not.
“We don’t want the government to make a decision in a silo. Seek stakeholder engagement – associations, rangers, athletes. When we have people making decisions whose only point of reference is Google, then we have a serious issue.”
He said it is important to look at the laws of TT, not those of any other country.
Explaining sport shooting, Couri said two Olympics categories are practised in TT – small- and full-bore shooting. In small-bore events, shots are taken at 25 and 50 metres with .22 mm pistols and rifles. In full-bore shooting, shots are taken from 600 and 1,000 yards using rifles with 7.62 mm ammunition. All the targets are made of paper.
Couri said when the Trinidad Rifle Association was started in 1879, .308 ammunition, which is the same as 7.62mm, was used. He wondered why a calibre that has been used for over a century was now being queried.
But even with its long history of use, he said those who use 7.62 mm ammunition for sport shooting will never get ammunition to carry home. Instead, they are given the ammunition on the range and in competition.
More women competitors
Another competitive aspect of sport shooting is practical shooting. There, a PCC is used with 9 mm rounds, 45-calibre rounds or any size bullet used in a pistol. To the untrained eye, the PCC looks like a short rifle because the barrel is longer than a handgun and has a shoulder stock.
“Once this thing interferers with sport you have to worry, because where will it end?”
Wright also stressed that none of the weapons used in sport shooting are automatic. They are all semi-automatic, so only one round of ammunition is expelled with a pull of the trigger.
He said all types of people are involved in sport shooting, including business people, police, military and, recently, a lot of women.
He said people were frightened because of the state of crime in the country and many times the police do not arrive in time or do not solve a crime, so they want to be able to defend themselves.
He said in the last three years, from just before covid19, he has seen an increase in people who acquire firearms who had an interest in sport shooting, especially PCC sport shooting.
“It became a competitive sport in Trinidad because it was entered as a division under IPSC, so it became very popular. That’s when the market opened up. Before, it wasn’t accessible, so you wouldn’t be in a position to purchase. Before that people only knew about shotguns and pistols.”
He explained that many who started doing defensive shooting, learning how to use their pistols effectively to protect themselves, their families and property, branched over to practical shooting, which is competitive, when they became competent using their personal weapons.
He said they often gain “an appetite” for it and want more and so eventually morph into practical, small- and full-bore shooting.
“We would have had kids wanting to take part. However, the age to get your FUL or FUEC (Firearm User Employees Certificate) is 25 years, which means we’re already behind the curve if you want to teach people to go for practical sport shooting.”
He said the cadets could shoot a firearm at age 12, but with the age limit to apply for an FUL at 25 and the process often taking years, by the time they get the FUL and start training, the person would be an “old athlete” on the world scale.
The 2022 ISSF World Shooting Champion, Rudrankksh Patil, is 19 and the overall International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) Handgun World Champion for 2022, Eric Grauffel, won his first French National Championship at 15 and his first world title at 18.
“If you want to keep the age limit for defensive (shooting) at 25, that’s fine, but we need to review the age limit for sporting. The person doing sporting would not own the firearm. The parents would have to take responsibility for the firearm on behalf of the child.”
He added although the FUL process is clear, most times it takes years unless you know or pay someone which encourages corruption. He suggested a body or an Assistant Commissioner of Police (ACP) in each police division be allowed to sign FULs to assist with the backlog.
Wright also said PCCs are used in home defence. Because of the compact sizes, they are easier to manipulate and fire. He said there was nothing prohibiting people from using any object to defend themselves.
Dr Varma Rambaran, 45, a professor at UTT and a marksman, pointed out that sport shooting has nothing to do with violence.
Rambaran, who started shooting in 2014 and started doing so competitively in 2017, competes in full-bore (long distance 7.62 mm) and .22mm small-bore competitions. He also won the West Indies Fullbore Shooting Championships in 2019, which was hosted in TT by the WI Fullbore Shooting Council.
He described shooting as relaxing, similar to golf. He said it takes a lot of mental focus to calculate the varying factors in hitting a target and physical endurance to hold the body steady and remain in the same place for long periods.
He said it was unfortunate that gun violence worldwide has negatively affected international competitions.
“Because of the crime in TT there is a stigma associated with firearms in terms of violence. Criminals throughout the world have given that picture.
"As a result, shooting is less attractive to sponsors. Many international competitions are no longer offering it because of a lack of financial support and it is becoming a dying sport.
“Having said that, those who are involved in the sport know otherwise. The top marksmen in the world are medical doctors, engineers, and people of ‘high’ professions, not military people. It has nothing to do with violence.”
About the proposed ban, he said assault or automatic firearms are already banned and any weapon or tool could be used to kill someone. If the firearms themselves were the problem, then cutlasses should also be banned, because they were used in many killings in Trinidad
Legal weapon can be easily traced
Dirk Barnes, retired major of the Defence Force and CEO of 868 Tactical Firearms and Air Support Tactical Security, explained that the term "assault rifle" is used by the US and UK military.
It describes an automatic rifle with a cyclic rate of 600-900 rounds per minute, with the projectile travelling at over 3,100 feet per second and delivering 1,200 foot pounds of energy.
The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it as “a military firearm that is chambered for ammunition of reduced size or propellant charge and that has the capacity to switch between semi-automatic and fully automatic fire.”
Barnes stressed that no assault rifle has ever been issued to any civilian in TT because they are already banned under the Firearms Act.
“Assault rifles are only owned by the government of TT and used by members that are exempted by the provisions of the Firearms Act, which bans the use of assault rifles. Those members belong to the armed forces like the TT Defence Force, Police Service and Prisons, and director of Forensics. That’s it.”
He also questioned how a 5.56mm or 7.62mm round could pose a threat to national security in the hands of a lawful citizen, seeing that weapons owned by someone with a FUL were test-fired, and the ballistics catalogued and recorded at the Forensic Science Centre. So if a legal weapon is used in a crime, it could be traced back to the owner because of that database.
“In TT we have a very robust system that doesn’t even exist in the US. If anybody is supposed to be mirroring anybody, the US should be mirroring us.”
He stressed that the ban would have no effect on crime, as criminals would continue to break the law, so any further ban would only affect those who already obey the law.
He said there was no history of law-abiding citizens using their firearms in crime except in domestic situations. And he likened the suggestion that such a person would use a weapon for mass shootings in TT to the movie Minority Report, where psychics predict crimes and the police arrest the person before they commit the crime.
He said some Caricom countries had few or no laws on “assault weapons,” so the bans were relevant to them, but as automatic weapons were already banned by law to citizens, there were already measures in place to prevent mass shootings by legal gun owners.
He added that the term “weapons of war” was misused by Minister of Energy Stuart Young, since other firearms such as old Remington shotguns and Glock pistols were used in war, or were created for military contracts and were technically weapons of war.
Young said recently in Parliament the Firearms Act would be amended when it came to “weapons of war.” He added that 5.56mm and 7.62mm ammunition shells were commonly seen in crime-scene reports.
In a previous Newsday article, National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds also said citizens of the Caribbean were already “traumatised” by gun violence, so the ban was a pre-emptive measure against mass shootings, which have never happened in TT.
Barnes believed the government was calling the rifles “assault weapons” instead of the correct terms in order to scare people. But until the government defines the terms it is using, people were only speculating.
He suggested the government rethink the strategy of banning legal firearms and instead consult with experts to deal with illegal firearms, getting firearms out of the hands of criminals.
Barnes believed under former police commissioner Gary Griffith, semi-automatic rifles were issued to civilians such as sportsmen who use them on ranges, firearms instructors, a few current and retired police and defence force officers and firearms dealers like himself, to protect their dealerships and the weapons therein.
Records show, under Griffith, 625 rifles were licensed to citizens in a private capacity.
“I went through the process and only purchased based on the law. My weapons cannot be modified to automatic. They pose no threat to anybody except maybe a bandit that decides to attack my armoury.
“So it is very difficult for me to try to understand what this ban is supposed to accomplish, other than disarming me if I fall into their category.”