As Panama deals with increases in crime rates, forged gun permits, and rising gang activity, the government is set to lift the ban on firearm imports, in an effort to promote personal safety.
Public Safety Minister Rodolfo Aguilera said the country will follow in the footsteps of the United States and Switzerland, where the right to bear arms is believed to lead to fewer homicides.
“Everything seems to indicate that there is no direct correlation in the aphorism that says more guns mean more crime,” said Aguilera, who explained that relaxed gun laws have allowed the United States to reduce the homicide rate over the last 20 years.
Aguilera added that new regulations will include criminal and psychological background checks for future gun owners.
Under the current law, in effect since 2012, only state security forces can import firearms. Meanwhile, the Central American Integration System (SICA) has called for a comprehensive review of Panama’s firearm-import ban before any action is taken by the National Assembly.
“It’s a decision for each sovereign government to make, but we should take into account that for criminals, anything that is prohibited becomes more attractive,” said Hefer Morataya, director of SICA’s Central American Programme of Small Arms Control
However, not everyone agrees that easing gun restrictions will benefit Panamanian society.
Teresita de Arias, former congresswoman and leader of the People’s Party, said that lifting the ban on gun imports could backfire on the public.
“The issue of security will not be solved because every citizen has a weapon to defend themselves,” Arias said. She believes Aguilera’s comments on US homicide rates differ from reality, adding that the North American country itself struggles with the issue of gun control.
In the first three months of 2015, Panama registered 165 homicides in six different regions. According to the Ministry of Security, 70 percent of those homicides were committed with a firearm.
“There is no registry of the firearms that come in, much less exact data of how many there are,” said Security Vice Minister Rogelio Donadío. “Illegal weapons trafficking does not generate as much profit as drugs, but it does threaten citizen security.”
In 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimated that an average of 700,000 firearms circulate through Panama’s streets.