Though described by many as an important step forward in curbing violence, the gun reform law passed in June came under criticism and scrutiny right out of the gate by opposition members, government supporters, and even police officers. While the opposition’s criticism has tended to focus on the government’s lack of political will in implementing the law, others worry that the law does not “fit into” the current Venezuelan context where the previous unrestricted flow of arms makes self-defense appear an unfortunate necessity.
In an op-ed to El Universal, Luis Izquiel—the coordinator of the MUD’s citizen security commission—said that for the law to have any impact that the government must “stop with the double discourse.” By this he was referring to the government’s support for disarmament alongside their complicated relations to radical and sometimes armed collectives in popular sectors of Caracas (see *Ciccariello-Maher, 2013 and **Velasco, 2011). For Izquiel, “It is contradictory to speak in the morning of disarmament and in the afternoon propose creating workers militias.” He also called for an end to the collectives and their use of arms as well as the “violent discourse emitted from those in power.” Various other commentators have pointed to the contradictory stance of both the Chávez and now Maduro governments on revolutionary armed citizens or “parapolicing” groups.
Chávez, as mentioned in the previous post, personally advocated for the more stringent version of the disarmament law that was put forth by the presidential committee he helped to organize. Yet he also maintained fragile relations with armed collectives that provided an important base of support for him in some poor sectors. His discourse on the issue vacillated, such as when he called for an “organized armed people” to defend the nation in 2010 and then referred to armed civilian groups as counterrevolutionary in 2012. Likewise, within the span of a few months Maduro proposed creating the armed worker militias that Izquiel referred to in his comments above and then signed the disarmament bill into law.
Venezuelan criminologist Fermín Mármol García has said that while the norms established by the law are important, the law focuses too heavily on those who sell arms legally rather than armed gangs in popular sectors. As noted in the previous post, Pablo Fernández, head of the Presidential Disarmament Committee, advocated for the closure of all armerías (gun shops), arguing that “the illegal market is nourished by legal arms.” Conversely, for Mármol García the real problem is the criminal gangs who trade drugs, guns, and ammunition illegally.
In a document titled “Manifesto for Disarmament and in Defense of Life” signed by organizations such as the Centro Gumilla and Fe y Alegría, various NGOs recognize the law as an essential “juridical instrument” in regulating the flow of arms. However, they list a number of concerns and recommendations in the manifesto, such as making a call for citizen participation in supervising the Armed Forces’ control of guns, ammunition and disarmament and the need to distribute clear information regarding the incentives and regulations for turning over weapons to the government and social organizations.
Both sides of the political division have also noted that laws alone disarm no one. From the opposition perspective, the law will have little effect if there is no political will to enforce it. Others, speaking from the Chavista position, have criticized the law for taking attention away from the underlying causes of violence—drugs, unemployment, and limited access to education. For example, as early as 2010, when the law was in the initial stages of discussion, Eduardo Samán, the president of Institute for the Defense of People’s Access to Goods and Services, criticized the whole conversation as a product of the opposition’s electoral focus on crime and disarmament, which he viewed as drawing attention away from “social inequality, capitalist culture of consumerism and the emotional effects of media violence on children.”
There are also some who believe that the law will only accomplish the disarmament of law-abiding citizens who live in popular sectors of the city, leaving the middle and upper classes with their legal weapons and narco-traffickers and police armed to “protect their merchandise,” i.e., drugs or illegal weapons.
This perspective was voiced at a community meeting that I attended last year in a working-class neighborhood, where a spokesperson from a community council welcomed the community police force but said that the collective in her neighborhood needed to remain armed to protect residents when the force was off duty at night.
Furthermore, police officers I have interviewed see the law and the previous resolutions passed as restricting only officers and those citizens who respect laws. They also see these “restrictions” as putting their lives in danger. For example, the resolution passed last year that banned the sale of guns has made police officers feel like they are in constant danger, as they attribute the rise in officer deaths in Caracas to criminals hunting down and killing officers for their weapons.
Speaking about the ban on guns in public places, one officer asked me what an officer is supposed to do when he goes out with his family to a mall or shopping center. “Who does this law disarm?” He asked me in an interview. “You have to leave your gun at home, so you go out with your family with a greater chance that you and your family will be killed. The problem is that those who write the laws are not police officers. [Politicians] go out with their 25 bodyguards and nothing is going to happen to them. But an officer who has put 20 criminals in jail and has forgotten all of their faces? Those criminals will never forget the face of the officer who arrested them. So I show up to this mall with my family unarmed and they arrive and kill me. So who is disarmed? [The law] disarms the police.”
* Ciccariello-Maher, George. 2013. We Created Chávez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press
** Velasco, Alejandro. 2011. “’We Are Still Rebels’: The Challenge of Popular History in Bolivarian Venezuela.“ In Venezuela’s Bolivarian Democracy: Participation, Politics, and Culture under Chávez, Edited by David Smilde and Daniel Hellinger. Durham, NC: Duke University Press