Although the right to bear firearms is enshrined in the Guatemalan constitution, it is also a right that the Peace Accords agreed to limit. But over the past 12 years it has been impossible to approve a law to limit, at least partially, the use of firearms. Until March 31 when after a series of heated debates the Arms Law was finally ratified. Although the law is not as strict as many social organizations would have wished, it is an important step towards tackling violent crime. The challenge will now be to ensure that the new legislation is approved.
This article is from INFORPRESS Centroamericana.
A decade after the Arms Law was first put forward, Congress finally approved the legislation that will curb the right to bear firearms and munitions. Under the new law, the prison sentence for many arms-related offences will be increased to eight years and offences that were not previously included in the Penal Code have been included. For the first time in the country’s history, there is a limit on the number of firearms that can be owned by an individual. The control of firearms has also been transferred from the Ministry of Defense to the Interior Ministry, a change that will come into effect over the next two years. The new law replaces a previous version approved in 1989 when the country was still in the midst of the armed conflict. The fact that the army is still in charge of controlling the use of firearms remains part of this wartime legacy. The 1996 Peace Accords thus stated the need for a new Arms Law. "The government pledges to promote a reform of the Arms and Munitions Law in order to (a) impose restrictions on the possession and right to bear firearms by individuals, according to Article 38 of the Constitution and (b) Hand over responsibility for arms control to the Interior Ministry," state the Peace Accords. However, the bills proposed after the Peace Accords never got very far. According to Carmen Rosa de León Escribano, of the Institute for the Teaching of Sustainable Development (IEPADES), a civil society organization that has campaigned for a reform of the arms law, this is occurred due to pressure exerted by the arms lobby in Congress. "Members of Congress did not actively hinder the passage of the law. They simply chose to do nothing," says the activist.
A Shift in Public Opinion.
Sandino Asturias, director of the Center for Guatemalan Studies (CEG), adds that the media and public opinion tended to side with the arms lobby. But as time went by a change occurred. Crime rates soared and public opinion changed regarding the availability of firearms. "The Peace Accords predicted what could happen if private security companies and firearms were not regulated. Now, 12 years later, this is just what has happened," says Asturias. Asturias points to a highly significant figure. Whereas during the late 1990s, 40% of homicides were committed with firearms, by 2008 this percentage had risen to 83%. Another IEPADES analyst, Mayda de León, adds that last year, for the first time, the number of people killed with firearms surpassed the number of those injured. Generally speaking, the homicide rate in Guatemala has soared, reaching an average of 18 murders a year in 2009. In 1999, when the Arms Law was first put forward, there were 2,655 murders; in 2008 there were over 6,200. According to analysts, the bloodshed led society to realize the importance of approving the Arms Law. "The media began to understand that the availability of firearms was at the root of the problem and that they shouldn’t defend the arms lobby, but rather the State and the people," says Asturias. Meanwhile, stresses Asturias, civil society, which was largely behind the effort to curb the use of firearms, began to gain ground. Another key factor, according to Asturias, has been the influence of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has demanded a reform of the Arms Law for over a year. All of these factors were influential in terms of securing the approval of a new law. But for the civil society groups that lobbied for the approval of this law for so many years, the delay has come at a heavy price. "If this legislation had been approved at the right historical moment – that is to say after the Peace Accords – surely the crime and homicide rates wouldn’t have reached the levels we have witnessed today," says Asturias.
A Step Forward.
According to Asturias, the law that has just been approved is a huge step forward in comparison to the previous version. However, he adds that "we didn’t go as far as we could have because the interests of the arms lobby still prevail in Congress." Analysts have emphasized that the most important step forward lies in the fact that arms trafficking is now considered a criminal offence, a serious omission in the previous version of the law. This offence now carries a 10 to 12 year prison sentence, in the case of civil or sports arms and 12 to 18 years in the case of war weapons. It is expected that this will help to reduce the huge amount of weapons illegally circulating in the country, which estimated to be around 300 thousand. Another important detail is the fact that in order to obtain a license to bear firearms it will be necessary to undergo a psychological test as well as a test that demonstrates due knowledge of arms and how to use them responsibly. Previously, there were no limits on who was allowed to carry arms. The number of arms that a person can have in his or her possession has also been reduced to three whereas before there was no limit. The purchase of munitions has been reduced to 250 a month per licensed arm. Previously, one could legally purchase up to 500 bullets a day.