Thursday, May 16, 2013

Comments on Guns and Gun Laws in Costa Rica

Opinions differ about gun ownership, and cards on the table mine leans against.  I don’t want to live in an armed society, don’t want to be armed myself, and strongly favor sensible restrictions on those who are.

However, the rebuttal to my opinion is that the wrong people are often armed anyway, and short of embracing a true turn-the-other-cheek pacifism, arming the right people is the best counter measure.

Unfortunately, in Costa Rica the wrong people are armed—beginning with the government.

Officially, Costa Rica is pacifist country without a military, but this may be little more than rhetoric.

Costa Rica spends three times more on its police than neighboring Nicaragua spends on its army.  Nicaragua thus charges that Costa Rica’s police are really an army under a different name.  The fact that some of Costa Rica’s police receive military training at the notorious School of the Americas underscores this allegation.

There are an awful lot of armed cops in Costa Rica too, not all of whom inspire confidence.  At a starting salary of around four hundred bucks a month—a bit over half the average salaries in the country—and job requirements that don’t even demand a high school diploma, the police forces aren’t necessarily attracting the ablest recruits.

While armed police abound, private armed security guards are even more prevalent.  As I write, one is snoozing across the street and another is down the block.  They’re everywhere—in the grocery stores, the banks, and so on—sometimes with guns drawn.

Whereas armed security guards may make some people feel safer, they have the opposite effect on me.   Since these guys don’t even have the qualifications to become cops or receive the training that the police get, their ubiquitous armed presence frankly frightens me.

Plus, security guards are not paid to protect me.  They are paid to protect the private interests that hire them.

Then there are the thugs.  A rough government estimate is that there are over 450,000 guns in Costa Rica, only 150,000 of which are registered.  This leaves 300,000 illegal guns floating around the country, or about one for every 15 men, women, and children.

How illegal guns enter the country is anyone’s guess, but some are stolen inside the country.  This past year a burglary relieved a major gun shop of around 300 pistols, and even a police substation was robbed of around a dozen weapons.

The government’s position on all this is that gun possession laws should be tightened, and there is a bill wending its way through the legislature that will do this.

However, the law is already too tight.  In order to obtain a gun legally in Costa Rica, a person must first pass three tests—written, range, and psychological—as well as produce a squeaky clean criminal report, submit to finger printing, and register the gun.  The cost for this bureaucratic rigmarole is over $250 (not counting the price of the gun), and it requires about three months of visits to and waiting in five separate and dispersed offices.

The proposed new tighter gun law will increase the fees to around $700 and the wait to over six months—again not counting the cost of the gun.

You have to wonder what the government is thinking.  The current law is already pricing the middle class out of legal gun ownership and a tougher law will really make the costs prohibitive.  I hate to be overly cynical, but I suspect that the government doesn’t want an armed citizenry.  Instead it wants only itself and its wealthy backers (sometimes via security guards) to be armed.

Meanwhile, the black market for illegal guns continues to expand, thanks to the already overly restrictive law.

Costa Rica’s existing gun law is also already replete with unintended consequences.

For example, you can’t simply pass your tests and pay your fees in order to have a permit in case you later want to buy a gun; you actually have to buy a gun to complete the process.

Then the process of obtaining a carry permit is almost identical to the process required to own a gun, so anyone with the stamina to endure the permit process might as well get a carry permit too.

Also, everyone must pass the range test with a pistol.  It doesn’t matter if all a person wants is a .22 varmint rifle or a shotgun to keep in their closet for home protection, they must become proficient with a pistol too.

The irony is thus that in an endeavor to control firearms, Costa Rica’s law encourages anyone willing and wealthy enough to tough out the permit process to go ahead and buy a gun, make it a pistol, and get a permit to carry it.

With the threat of an even tougher gun law on the horizon, guys like me are also encouraged to get a gun now.

So I did.

As disquieting as the prospect of widespread gun ownership is, it’s even more disquieting to live in a heavily armed society in which the government is hell bent on keeping legal guns out of the hands of the honest middle class.