Colombia is another place where disagreements among politico-military elites about values, power, and resources turned violent to the general and widespread suffering of millions. For many decades, different armed actors have perpetrated a general condition of armed violence. Among them are left-wing guerrilla groups, irregular paramilitary forces, and even the Colombian armed forces, most infamously in relation to the so-called “false positives” scandal.
A lot of the violence has been gun violence, and a lot of the victims have been civilians. In this respect, it is somewhat perplexing to see that a recent governmental decree that purports to extend a general prohibition on gun-ownership has been criticized and interpreted as an attempt to re-arm Colombia and loosen its gun laws.
Does the new law make it easier for civilians to carry guns? If so, how can a state that is truly committed to peace and reconciliation justify legislation of this sort?
New President, New Gun Law?
Colombia’s gun legislation is complicated. It is clear that, under Law 2535 of 1993, the government has the power to place a general prohibition on gun ownership and to install and run a monopoly on the issue of gun licenses.
In the recent and controversial governmental decree (Decree 2362/2018) President Ivan Duque’s government has extended a pre-existing general prohibition (imposed by former President Juan Manuel Santos) on the carrying of guns by civilians. On the face of it, this appears to be a good initiative. A post-conflict society should probably endeavor to disarm as many elements of society as possible, including its civilian population.
However, it is also clear that Colombian gun control legislation has always allowed civilians to carry guns in special circumstances. These include private security details for judges and politicians as well as special licenses for hunting, private defense, and private collection. The controversy surrounding the new proposal, therefore, is less about the fact of “special authorizations” and more about the words that have been used in an added paragraph. The new section simply asserts that special authorization may be granted to individuals,
…for reasons of emergency or security […] taking into consideration among other factors, the particular circumstances of each application” (author’s translation)
From the perspective of the government’s opponents, this is a rather untrammeled discretion which is given to the Ministry of Defense.
Further, given the realities of ongoing violence and insecurity in Colombian society, it may be surmised that every citizen could make a successful application on the basis of the above wording. The only beneficiaries, in this respect, would be arms dealers.
Legal Challenge in 2019
At present, the details of how civilians can make a case for “special authorizations” has not yet been published. Yet, there is already considerable political opposition to the initiative, and a legal challenge has been prepared.
Three former Interior Ministers have expressed a general concern that the modified law will make it easier for the Ministry of Defense to authorize the arming of civilian groups. This is a legitimate concern given the violence wrought by Colombia’s previous paramilitary armed groups.
However, the legal challenge can also be interpreted as a part of the ongoing underlying conflict, whereby those proposing the modifications to the law are opposed to the peace process, and those challenging the proposal are generally pro-peace.
Jus Post Bellum and Post-Conflict Disarmament
Different countries have different gun ownership laws, and it must be remembered that more guns do not always equal more gun-related deaths (see the case of Switzerland).
However, in a post-conflict country like Colombia, where gun-related homicides are already very high, it appears, at best, clumsy to make guns more readily available to civilians. A recent study concluded that there are currently around 5 million civilian-held legal and illegal guns in Colombia. Further, Colombia ranks 7th in gun-related homicides.
At worst, Duque’s proposal is irresponsible and unethical. It will only make it more difficult to overcome Colombia’s insecurity problem which falls disproportionately on the Colombian poor. In a post-conflict society, gun legislation should encourage the general disarmament of the population. This creates the social and political space for peace and sends a more positive message to society relating to the overall aims of reconciliation.
The FARC itself has handed in over 10,000 guns. As part of the civil society effort towards peace and reconciliation, these guns were made into an “anti-monument” by Bogotá-based artist Doris Salcedo, as a way of remembering what Colombians have been through. A small gesture, perhaps, in such a heavily armed country. Yet, for the benefit of the community, small gestures of reconciliation must be encouraged.
In post-conflict societies, disagreements about the rights and wrongs of the conflict, about who won and who lost, and even concerning what the conflict was all about, tend to reproduce themselves as the peace agreement is implemented and in relation to new legislative proposals.
In the new post-conflict Colombia, the latest political controversy has revolved around the recent proposal to modify an aspect of its gun laws. We should expect controversies of this kind to continue to arise throughout Duque’s presidency. After all, those previously opposed to the peace deal are now in power and ready to continue to make modifications.
More details should be forthcoming soon about the changes that the government wants to make in the gun control legislation. For some, Duque’s proposal may be interpreted as an initiative that makes it easier for special interests to arrange and recruit their own private security. For others, it will be interpreted as a necessary measure that allows civilians to seek special permissions to defend themselves in what continues to be a very violent country.
The details are not yet available, so it is not possible to say whether the new rules do, in fact, loosen the law on gun ownership. Yet, and especially in a post-conflict society where all sides were to blame, it is important for the government to send the right message in leading the way towards peace and reconciliation.
In gun legislation, the right approach is to work towards the gradual and general disarmament of the population. This is not an easy path but the alternatives may turn out to be worse.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.