• David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Rebecca Hanson is a contributor. The views expressed are the authors's own.
Last month President Nicolas Maduro signed into law a disarmament bill that has gone under various revisions within the National Assembly since 2010. The law signifies an important attempt by the Venezuelan government and legislature to control the flow of arms in the country. In this post we look at the evolution of the law, the conflicts that the law has produced (both between the opposition and the government and within Chavista ranks), and provide a summary of the law’s main points.
Although there are no reliable figures on the number of guns in circulation in Venezuela (estimates range from 1 million to 6 million) their circulation was for the most part unregulated until last year.
Since 2010, three different commissions have been created to combat the problem. The first commission was organized within the National Assembly in January 2011. It was headed up by Freddy Bernal (PSUV National Assembly member and previous mayor of Caracas) and was dominated by PSUV deputies but also included a few opposition members such as Juan Carlos Caldera. It was referred to as the Mixed Commission (Comisión Mixta) because it had members from two different National Assembly subcommittees (Interior and Defense). The Mixed Commission’s proposal suffered a number of postponements and internal differences between Diosdado Cabello, the president of the Assembly, and Mr. Bernal.
In May 2011, late-President Hugo Chávez decreed the creation of the second commission, the Presidential Disarmament Commission (CPD). The CPD was headed up by human rights activist Pablo Fernández and then Minister of Justice Tareck El Aissami and included 20 members from the government, the academy, and civil society.
Though initially the two groups worked together, there were serious differences: the CPD was dominated by civilians such as Mr. Fernández, while the National Assembly’s Mixed Commission had a strong presence of former military officers, including Assembly members Rafael Gil Barrios and Pedro Carreño.
The CPD backed a number of measures that the National Assembly's Mixed Commission considered too restrictive and did not want included in the bill. Thus, the Mixed Commission eventually cut off communication with the CPD due to disputes over what type of bill would be put in front of the Assembly.
The CPD and Mixed Commission differed mainly over the issue of restricting the sale and carrying of legal arms. According to Fernández, “The illegal market is nourished by legal arms.” In contrast, the military faction argued that the two issues were distinct and that, with the 2012 election year coming up, they could not afford to crack down on legal arms and alienate the middle class or the armed forces.
In June of 2012 the CPD presented its proposal to the Mixed Commission which in turn presented its final version to the National Assembly plenary for discussion. The Mixed Commission’s final version, however, excluded a number of key issues. The CPD’s proposal advocated for a combined arms registry; more restrictive measures on the renewal of licenses (such as a recent psychological examination); extending the regulation of weapons to cover knives and explosives; the elimination of arms carried for personal defense; and stronger control over ammunition production. All of these measures were left out of the Mixed Commission’s proposal.
The CPD, in turn, side-stepped the National Assembly and went directly to President Chávez who put a stop to discussion of the Mixed Commission’s bill in the Assembly. As a result, in July 2012 a third commission was formed to reconcile the differences between the CPD’s proposal and the one supported by the Mixed Commission. This group was headed by Diosdado Cabello and included PSUV parliament members as well as two opposition Assembly members—Eduardo Gómez Sigala and William Ojeda.
The proposal that came out of this third commission kept about 80 percent of the CPD’s version intact. It was approved by the Assembly on June 11 and signed by Maduro on June 15 of this year.
However, it also watered down some key sanctions and regulations. For example, while the final version requires gun licenses to be divided into various categories (sporting, hunting, transportation of goods, etc.) it allows for personal defense licenses, which the CPD wanted to eliminate. The law did create an automated system of registration for arms, parts, and ammunition that will be under the control of the Armed Forces. However, it discarded the shared registry of guns that would have allowed all state organizations to share and access information.
Furthermore, the law includes no controls over CAVIM (the state company which produces arms and ammunition for the Armed Forces), which Fernández considered a fundamental aspect of gun reform. While most guns are imported into the country, the majority of ammunition in Venezuela is produced by CAVIM. And, according to a study by the CICPC and the National Police, 80 percent of the gun shells found in homicide scenes were manufactured in the country by CAVIM.
Though the Ministry of Justice issued a resolution closing all armerías (gun shops) in May of last year and both proposals by the CPD and the Mixed Commission designated the Venezuelan state as the only body legally competent to sell guns, the final law allows for the eventual reopening of gun shops and the future private commercialization of guns (though individuals are prohibited from selling guns to other individuals, and are allowed to sell their guns to the state only). Gun licenses will not be available for another two years, however, meaning that no one will be able to legally buy a gun until 2015.
The legal age for carrying a gun was raised to 25 and stricter sentences for the carrying and possession of illegal guns were established: 4-6 years of jail time for illegal possession of a gun, 4-8 for the carrying of an illegal gun, and 6-10 years for possession and carrying of guns made for war. It also penalizes the alteration of a gun’s serial numbers with 3-5 years of jail time, the introduction of guns into prisons with 8-10 years, and the firing of guns in public places with 1-3 years. Additionally, individuals are not given personal ownership of guns but are allowed conditional possession, meaning that the state can “recuperate” an individual’s gun at any time. The final law also prohibits the fabrication, selling, and carrying of knives that the CPD’s proposal included.
Ammunition is to be marked with the name of the producer, the year of production, as well as where the ammunition is to be sent. Police ammunition is now marked to identify each police body that will be using it. Authorized citizens can only buy 50 cartridges each year. This same amount is to be assigned annually to all police officers, of which more can be requested with proper justification.
Apart from new restrictions, the law also includes measures like a national fund to provide care and attention to victims of gunfire as well as establishing a 5 percent tax on the net earnings of businesses that sell, import, and produce arms, which will be put into this fund.Additionally, it allows for the voluntary and anonymous turning over of weapons to the National Program for the Exchange of Arms and Ammunition in exchange for education opportunities, university scholarships, employment opportunities, construction materials, etc. Both of these measures were integral to the CPD’s campaign the year before.