Security is the most critical props in all developed and developing economies across the globe. At the national level, this element is the nerve fibre of all sectors of the economy, and a compromise on any safety or security layer can have serious ramifications on the entire economy.
One of the biggest security challenges many governments have been grappling with is the proliferation of firearms among the civilian population. This has been a direct cause of increase in armed crime and inspired dangerous gangs and militias. In the context of our country, corruption, political influence, and various lapses in the regulation of acquisition of firearms by civilians have seen an alarming increase in illegal purchase of guns.
This has fuelled organized crimes such as carjacking, drug trafficking, robbery with violence, and poaching among others.
Of course, there are varied reasons for acquisition of firearms. In some cases, firearms are being owned as part of a tradition or with the intention of perpetrating criminal activities for political or financial gain. For instance, criminal gangs have gained infamy for committing heinous crimes in urban centers and informal settlements in Nairobi, Coast, Nyanza and Western Kenya.
Although many use illegally acquired fireams, it is also emerging that even legally owned weapons are frequently hired or stolen and used by criminals. In fact, it is discreditable that some youth, who should be constructive and economically productive, no longer shy away from brandishing firearms on social media platforms and taunting the established law and order.
In some pastoralist counties, community tensions are increasingly creating a demand for small arms as groups compete for scarce resources and protect their livelihoods. As such, the motivation for firearms possession is predominantly defensive. However, in the recent past, the concentration of illegal guns, especially in the North Rift, Upper Eastern and the South Rift has been driven by negative ethnicity and political incitement for the residents to defend themselves against perceived dangers. This has not only aggravated the retrogressive cultural practice of cattle-rustling but also aggravated ethnic animosity to the detriment of investment and economic activities in those areas.
The drastic measures taken by the government to clean up an accretion of irregularities in the licensure of firearms are worth commending.
First of all, there has been a progressive deployment of more security personnel to improve policing and security in most restive areas. As a matter of fact, it is the cardinal responsibility of the government to protect the lives of citizens and their property in any part of the country. In all honesty, armed civilians do not have the capacity to stop crimes —a licensed gun holder is not trained in law enforcement. Handling life-threatening situations is, therefore, not in their purview.
Secondly, the recent appointment of a new team to the Firearms Licensing Board (FLB) is, without a doubt, one of the precursory steps towards the improvement of firearms control and curbing the proliferation of illegal firearms and misuse of licensed guns in our country. In fact, the Board is currently working on modalities for establishing a digital register of all civilian firearms, a strategy that will be complemented with thorough background checks for authenticity of the existing firearms licences.
There have been cases where civilians have had access to military-grade firearms and accessories. For instance, during the election period, detectives found an M4 (not allowed in civilian hands) in a private residence. Again, we recently detained a consignment of 1,000 Belgian automatic assault rifles at the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA). The two incidences highlight the loopholes that exist in firearms control, so much so that civilians could access high grade firearms meant for mass destruction.
Thirdly, the recent restructuring of the National Police Service will go a long way in curbing the smuggling of firearms. The Administration Police, who are now responsible for border control, will address the issue of porous borders, which is one of the many shared regional concerns, and ensure that no weapons are trafficked into our country by sneaky dealers and other criminals. The newly formed Kenya Coast Guard Service is also a sign of a responsible government in response to terrorism and other transnational organized crimes fuelled by the trafficking of firearms.
All in all, we must be alive to the fact that illegal acquisition and misuse of firearms is a major threat to our country and the region at large. To a great extent, there is a lot we can learn from developed countries in this aspect and formulate policies and review our legislation in the management and control of guns before the situation gets out of hand.
Statistics show that countries with permissive gun control laws have higher gun related crime cases. For instance, according to a March 2016 study, gun crime rates in the US were 25.3 times higher than in other populous, high-income countries.
In this light, we need stricter enforcement of the Firearms Act and other related gun laws and streamline processes of acquiring and licensing firearms for private use to complement the work already being done by the Kenya National Focal Point (KNFP) on Small Arms and Light Weapons. We also owe it to ourselves to cooperate with the new Firearms and Licensing Board, not only during the upcoming vetting of firearms holders but also during the purchase of weapons, all in the best interest of our country and the region.
(Dr Matiangi is the Cabinet Secretary, Ministry of Interior)