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How did the FLA get here?

Robert L Gregory

Sunday, August 06, 2017

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Jamaican society has truly evolved. The situation which remained in place up to the establishment of the Firearm Licensing Authority (FLA) in 2006 obtained from the time of the passing of the Firearms Act in the 1947 Colonial Legislature, when the privilege to legally own and carry a firearm in our country was dependent largely on a citizen's socio-economic class and colour.

I remember my own childhood experiences growing up on Sevens Road in May Pen, Clarendon, the son of two civil servants. My father owned a .32 calibre revolver which he claimed was to protect life and property. It was the very same type of pistol that was used by our civil servant neighbour to end his life one Saturday morning on his front lawn.

Guns have always had a prominent place in my consciousness. I remember “Busha” with his 12-Gauge shotgun, riding his horse to secure his property from the “thiefin bwoy dem”, and the signs on the fences warning that “Trespassers will be shot on sight”.

The Firearms Act was revised by the legislature of independent Jamaica in 1967, providing for individuals to own and use firearms and ammunition after application to the superintendent of police was approved. Unsuccessful applicants had the right to appeal to the minister of national security, who would convene a hearing on the matter.

Unlike in the United States, where the bearing of firearms is a constitutional provision, the lawful bearing of arms in Jamaica is a privilege granted at the discretion of the Government of Jamaica, effected through the authority of the minister of national security and administered through the offices of the local superintendent of police.

So, the superintendent of police exercised his discretionary powers to grant firearm licences, using essentially the same class and colour criteria as did his colonial era predecessors from 1947.

I also remember my own 1987 application to the superintendent of police at Constant Spring for a firearm licence, because I was then the managing director of a garment-manufacturing concern, whose weekly cash payroll for its 600 employees was considered a security risk. The inspector who handled my application on behalf of the superintendent made sure I complied with all the requirements, including those for the safe keeping of the gun. He even took note of my competence with guns gained in my youth while serving as an army cadet sergeant major.

I had not been reading the signals when, after my weekly enquiries, I was repeatedly told that the licence approval had not yet come back from the police commissioner's office. I finally gave up after 14 months of waiting. I was later made to understand that one had to “lubricate the process” to actually secure that which one was already proven legally fit and proper and eligible to be granted. It seemed clear to me, thereafter, that thousands of dollars must have been changing hands to secure a firearm licence. This arrangement thrived for several years as both the corrupt approvers of the permits and the corrupt beneficiaries brought the entire system into disrepute.

The Government of the day had no choice but to devise a response, which led to Cabinet Decision 7/04 in 2006, and which gave approval for the revision of the policy and procedures in the Act relating to the issuing and renewing of firearm licences and the establishment of the FLA for carrying out related functions. The decision also saw to the allocation of funds for the acquisition of new technology for the operation of the authority, and the issuance of drafting instructions to the chief parliamentary counsel to amend the Firearms Act accordingly, and the revised Act's subsequent passage in Parliament.

This decision wrested the power to grant approvals for licences from the hands of the superintendents and put an abrupt end to the old corrupt arrangement, or so it was thought.

My gun-related experiences later rushed back into my consciousness in May 2012 as I came to grips with my new responsibilities as chairman of the FLA. Those experiences enabled me to contextualise and so understand why so many “criminally not fit and proper” licensed firearm owners were appearing before the authority (board) for licence revocation as a consequence of being identified through means of the FLA's mandatory recertification background investigations of licences issued by the police before the FLA came into being.

In its early years, the fledgling FLA operated within an atmosphere of deep resentment from its national security sister agency, the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) — not dissimilar, in many respects, to the JCF's current unofficially expressed sentiments toward the Independent Commission of Investigation (INDECOM).

So, as chairman of the newly appointed five-member authority (board), which by law consisted of: a retired person from the post of director of public prosecutions (DPP) or senior civil servant, a retired police officer not below the rank of senior superintendent, a retired judge of the Court of Appeal or Supreme Court, and two other individuals who the minister is satisfied are of high integrity and able to exercise sound judgement in fulfilling their responsibilities under the Act.

There was also in place an FLA Review Board, separately appointed by the minister, comprised of individuals who had served in the posts of DPP or a senior member of staff of the Office of the DPP; a person who has served as a judge of the Court of Appeal or the Supreme Court; and a person who had served as an officer of the JCF not below the rank of senior superintendent.

FLA applicants whose applications for firearm licences were denied by the FLA have the recourse to appeal the decision, within 21 days after their receipt of the written denial, to the Review Board, who will review the appeal and make recommendations to the minister, all independent of the FLA.

When the board I chaired assumed office in May of 2012, the minister charged us to reduce the then up to three-year application processing backlog for the FLA to provide a deny or approve decision to applicants; to make more transparent the criteria for the granting of licences to fit and proper law-abiding residents of Jamaica, without respect to their socio-economic class or colour; and to also address the then rampant rumours and anecdotal accounts of rampant corruption at the still-fledgling FLA.

We recruited the services of a brilliant administrator and leader from Scotiabank to manage and lead the necessary organisational restructuring and business process re-engineering exercises needed to place the FLA in full alignment with its new vision: “The FLA enjoys public confidence through consistently superior professionalism, integrity and customer satisfaction,” along with its new mission: “To provide an environment of transparency and integrity in the regulation of firearms and ammunition used by Jamaican residents. We will do this by having highly trained, professional staff providing high-quality service to our individual customers.”

Within four years, the proud, committed young Jamaican professionals at the FLA caught the vision of a better FLA and achieved all seven strategic objectives:

1. To provide a decision for new firearm applications within six to nine months.

2. To process renewals and re-certifications in less than one hour.

3. To perform audits on security companies, gun dealers, shooting ranges, and gun clubs at least biennially.

4. To ensure adequate risk management systems to protect the authority's database of licensing records.

5. To ensure timely payment of and accounting for all fees due and payable to the FLA for delivery of services.

6. To ensure consistently high levels of customer service and satisfaction for internal and external customers.

7. To provide a regular forum to meet with the FLA's main stakeholders.

Consequent on their achievements in 2015, the FLA was named the most improved customer service entity in the Jamaica public sector service competition, and also won the second-place prize as Best Customer Service Entity.

With all that was achieved in 2015, to what can Jamaica attribute the drastically changed fortunes of the FLA today? It is important, as the organisation charts the way forward, that it honours the established structures of checks, balances and accountabilities. These were dishonoured and violated — so sad for the staff who, for those short years, built a reputation for the FLA that they were proud of. We must now work to secure its future.

Robert L Gregory CD, JP, is a consultant, leadership coach and former executive director of HEART Trust/NTA. Send comments to the Observer or gregoryrobert6@gmail.com.

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