More Costa Ricans Taking Up Arms

February 8, 2008

A liquor store owner on Jan. 23 shot two robbers, killing one and injuring the other. A week later, a bodyguard fended off a carjacker then hunted him down and fatally shot him in the back.

The shootings may be part of a trend: citizens taking up arms, rather than relying on police to protect them from an alarming increase in violence nationwide.

Last year, Ticos purchased and registered 8,551 guns more than any other year since officials began keeping track in 1989. The 2007 purchases eclipsed the last big gunbuying spree, in 2001, when 8,324 firearms were acquired.

The most logical explanation for the upswing in gun sales is fear. Talk to any Tico and you will be hard pressed to find one who hasn t been assaulted or robbed in recent years, or know someone who has.

Such violence has been steadily increasing by an average of 10.5% over the last three years, according to police statistics coordinator Mario Solano.

Another 13% should be added to that figure, based on an estimate of unreported crimes, he said.

Of the 8,551 firearms registrations last year, 3,612 were in the name of individuals, and 4,939 were in the name of legal representatives of companies, mostly private security firms.

Bearing Arms: Good or Bad?

Armament Administration Director William Hidalgo said he does not approve of the arming trend. Unlike many of his compatriots there are 100,085 firearms registrations and 110,505 concealed-carry permits on the books in Costa RicaHidalgo said he owns no guns.

They re not toys. Unfortunately, people believe that going around armed will keep them safe, but actually, it s just the opposite. Criminals can steal the weapon. Then (the guns) go to the black market and end up being used for another assault.

Further, the legal requirements for ownership and concealment are too lax, he added.

When a person acquires an arm, they are acquiring a great responsibility, he said. They must continue practicing and training to the maximum.

José Ojeda, owner of CDCShootingRange in the western San José district of Pavas, agrees that gun owners should train more but he disagrees that having weapons is less safe.

I know that people who own a gun have less probability of getting injured, he said.

Just by showing the gun and saying, I m armed and I will shoot you, the thieves will usually just run away. I hear from people every day who say they scared some thieves away by firing some rounds into the air.

Owning a firearm may seem like an easy, logical decision if you live in a crime-ridden area with a low police presence. But if you ever use it, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) will investigate you.

The evidence will be turned over to a court, Hidalgo said, and it will be in the court s hands to decide if you should be held accountable.

(The liquor store owner) will have to defend himself in court, he said. This can lead to more violence, not to mention all of the legal costs. The owner put his life in danger as well as all of the employees in his shop.

The Costa Rican criminal code is somewhat vague on self-defense.

It states it is not a crime to injure another person to avoid a greater evil, assuming the danger is imminent and immediate, the person who injures the other didn t provoke them first and that the violence wasn t avoidable.

It also states it s not a crime to defend yourself or another from illegitimate aggression, assuming the action taken is reasonably necessary to stop the aggression.

But the law also states that there can be an excess of defense, which a judge has discretion to decide on. But then it also states the force is not punishable if it resulted from the excitement, disturbance or confusion of the circumstances.

The liquor store owner and the vigilante bodyguard, both of whom are under investigation by OIJ, declined to speak to The Tico Times.

Taking it to the Streets

The self-defense trend is being expressed not only in guns.

Neighborhood watch committees are growing by 500 each year, according to Public Security Ministry Capt. Swamy Flores.

The movement started in 1997 here, he said. There are a total of 3,500 in the nation right now.

These committees, many of which form after communities become dissatisfied with police protection, have to be approved by the ministry. They have to submit a summary of crime problems in their neighborhood as well as a plan for tackling those problems.

Each committee s membership is kept a secret to protect them from retaliation, Flores said.

Eddie Ryan, originally from New York City and owner of the Costa de Papito hotel at Playa Cocles in the Caribbean province of Limón, said business owners in his community raised funds for their own force to patrol the streets and beaches last August.

You have basically undermanned, undertrained, underpaid, underorganized and unsupervised police, so that s what you get, Ryan said. The bottom line is nobody was being served by waiting on a government response, so the obvious response had to come from the private sector.

Ryan s fellow business owners want to keep the area safe not just for themselves but for tourists. They raised enough money to hire six guards, two on motorcycle and four on bicycle.

We noticed an immediate, drastic drop in (street crime), he said. But with their presence, it called attention to the absence of police.

As a result, the cops have resented the guards.

The police had them against the wall, told them they can t have guns, treated them like criminals and made them take off their yellow Keep Puerto Viejo Safe T-shirts, he said.

Relations have since improved with the police but donations dried up after the conflict.

For now, he said, there s not enough money to pay guards to make the streets safe.

A liquor store owner on Jan. 23 shot two robbers, killing one and injuring the other. A week later, a bodyguard fended off a carjacker then hunted him down and fatally shot him in the back.

The shootings may be part of a trend: citizens taking up arms, rather than relying on police to protect them from an alarming increase in violence nationwide.

Last year, Ticos purchased and registered 8,551 guns – more than any other year since officials began keeping track in 1989. The 2007 purchases eclipsed the last big gunbuying spree, in 2001, when 8,324 firearms were acquired.

The most logical explanation for the upswing in gun sales is fear. Talk to any Tico and you will be hard pressed to find one who hasn’t been assaulted or robbed in recent years, or know someone who has.

Such violence has been steadily increasing by an average of 10.5% over the last three years, according to police statistics coordinator Mario Solano.

Another 13% should be added to that figure, based on an estimate of unreported crimes, he said.

Of the 8,551 firearms registrations last year, 3,612 were in the name of individuals, and 4,939 were in the name of legal representatives of companies, mostly private security firms.

Bearing Arms: Good or Bad?

Armament Administration Director William Hidalgo said he does not approve of the arming trend. Unlike many of his compatriots – there are 100,085 firearms registrations and 110,505 concealed-carry permits on the books in Costa Rica – Hidalgo said he owns no guns.

“They’re not toys. Unfortunately, people believe that going around armed will keep them safe, but actually, it’s just the opposite. Criminals can steal the weapon. Then (the guns) go to the black market and end up being used for another assault.”

Further, the legal requirements for ownership and concealment are too lax, he added.

“When a person acquires an arm, they are acquiring a great responsibility,” he said. “They must continue practicing and training to the maximum.”

José Ojeda, owner of CDCShootingRange in the western San José district of Pavas, agrees that gun owners should train more but he disagrees that having weapons is less safe.

“I know that people who own a gun have less probability of getting injured,” he said.

“Just by showing the gun and saying, ‘I’m armed and I will shoot you,’ the thieves will usually just run away. I hear from people every day who say they scared some thieves away…by firing some rounds into the air.”

Owning a firearm may seem like an easy, logical decision if you live in a crime-ridden area with a low police presence. But if you ever use it, the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) will investigate you.

“The evidence will be turned over to a court,” Hidalgo said, “and it will be in the court’s hands to decide if you should be held accountable.

“(The liquor store owner) will have to defend himself in court,” he said. “This can lead to more violence, not to mention all of the legal costs. The owner put his life in danger as well as all of the employees in his shop.”

The Costa Rican criminal code is somewhat vague on self-defense.

It states it is not a crime to injure another person to avoid a greater evil, assuming the danger is imminent and immediate, the person who injures the other didn’t provoke them first and that the violence wasn’t avoidable.

It also states it’s not a crime to defend yourself or another from “illegitimate aggression,” assuming the action taken is reasonably necessary to stop the aggression.

But the law also states that there can be an “excess of defense,” which a judge has discretion to decide on. But then it also states the force is not punishable if it resulted from the excitement, disturbance or confusion of the circumstances.

The liquor store owner and the vigilante bodyguard, both of whom are under investigation by OIJ, declined to speak to The Tico Times.

Taking it to the Streets

The self-defense trend is being expressed not only in guns.

Neighborhood watch committees are growing by 500 each year, according to Public Security Ministry Capt. Swamy Flores.

“The movement started in 1997 here,” he said. “There are a total of 3,500 in the nation right now.”

These committees, many of which form after communities become dissatisfied with police protection, have to be approved by the ministry. They have to submit a summary of crime problems in their neighborhood as well as a plan for tackling those problems.

Each committee’s membership is kept a secret to protect them from retaliation, Flores said.

Eddie Ryan, originally from New York City and owner of the Costa de Papito hotel at Playa Cocles in the Caribbean province of Limón, said business owners in his community raised funds for their own force to patrol the streets and beaches last August.

“You have basically undermanned, undertrained, underpaid, underorganized and unsupervised police, so that’s what you get,” Ryan said. “The bottom line is nobody was being served by waiting on a government response, so the obvious response had to come from the private sector.”

Ryan’s fellow business owners want to keep the area safe not just for themselves but for tourists. They raised enough money to hire six guards, two on motorcycle and four on bicycle.

“We noticed an immediate, drastic drop in (street crime),” he said. “But with their presence, it called attention to the absence of police.”

As a result, the cops have resented the guards.

“The police had them against the wall, told them they can’t have guns, treated them like criminals and made them take off their yellow ‘Keep Puerto Viejo Safe’ T-shirts,” he said.

Relations have since improved with the police but donations dried up after the conflict.

For now, he said, there’s not enough money to pay guards to make the streets safe.

To Get a Gun in Costa Rica

1. Visit a gun shop, figure out which gun you wish to purchase and take down information about the gun. You can also buy used and get the gun immediately but you have to report it to the Armament Administration within 10 days.

2. Take a one-time written test and firearms practical test. The test will require you to use either a pistol or a revolver and they don’t tell you in advance which. You have to hit a target area seven out of 10 shots or you fail and will have to take the test again.

3. Pass a psychological exam by a Public Security Ministry-certified psychologist. These can take up to three hours, depending on your mental state.

4. Pass a criminal background check by the Judicial Investigation Police.

5. Provide two photographs of yourself.

After the process is completed, you get an invoice, a receipt and official seals for the firearm, which you must keep. You can buy up to three firearms on one registration but each has to be inspected.

There is a separate application for a concealedcarry permit.

You cannot legally own or acquire a gun if you are a convict still serving time, are under age 18, were convicted of a firearms offense and banned from owning a firearm, have a mental or physical disability affecting your ability to use a firearm.

Nonresidents can own a gun if it is registered in the name of a corporation, but they cannot get a concealed weapons permit.

Sources: The federal Armament Administration and the owners of the CDCShootingRange in the western San José district of Pavas. The process is supposed to take 30 days but it can take up to two months.

What? No RPGs?

These are the firearms you can legally own, according to Costa Rican law:

1. Single- and double-action pistols and revolvers, from .22-caliber to .72-caliber.

2. Semiautomatic pistols and revolvers up to .45-caliber.

3. Rifles up to .45-caliber.

4. Shotguns up to 12-gauge.

 

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