Kenya has too many firearms in the wrong hands

Kenyan authorities do not seem to know the exact number of firearms being held by private citizens. [iStockphoto]

There are too many firearms in the hands of undeserving young men in Kenya.

Although I have not come across any study that precisely shows a correlation between the number of firearms and crime in Kenya, I have reason to believe that many incidents of violent crime in the country are attributable to the proliferation of small arms in the wrong hands.

Kenyan authorities do not seem to know the exact number of firearms which are being held by private citizens.

However, the surging numbers of young people visiting coffee houses and social places with bulging waists that barely hide what they are carrying does not only evident an increasing number of firearms in private hands, but is also a cause of worry to many Kenyans, especially in Nairobi. For a long time in Kenya, it was very difficult to notice a person carrying a gun unless they were uniformed police and other security officers on duty.

I guess it was because licensed firearms holders fully appreciated the import of the burden they were carrying on their waists. It was apparent to them that firearms were not only a tool for protecting society, but equally a danger to the holders themselves.

Today, holding a firearm has become a status symbol, with many young holders doing everything possible to ensure that they leave no doubt in the minds of people as to what they are carrying. I have been to social spaces where relatively young men, some hardly out of teenage, patronize with their small arms barely hidden under translucent slim-fit shirts. The excited young firearms holders ensure that they attract the attention of fellow revellers by intermittently touching their waists ostensibly to check if their guns are safely tacked.

A good look at such excited firearms holders reveals that most of them should not even qualify to hold a broken wood, leave alone a gun. The fact that people who don't seem qualified to hold firearms are holding them could only mean at least two things.

First, they got the firearms irregularly either from the licensing authorities or other sources. Second, there is a problem with due diligence in the administration of firearms licensing. Whichever the case, there appears to be a credible concern among Kenyans that there are too many firearms in the hands of private citizens, many of who are undeserving.

Even more worrying is the fact that very many young people now have access to guns. I am not very sure about the precise criteria used by the government in issuing firearms licenses to private citizens, but I do believe that for one to be a licensed gun holder, there must be a real threat to the security of citizens (including him/herself) and their property that they seek to protect.

By that criterion alone, most licensed firearms holders should be police officers and members of other disciplined forces. Beyond that, there is another category of citizens who, by virtue of their wealth or sensitive work, would be exposed to insecurity. Typically, the latter category should comprise very few members of the society who, in any case, are recognizable.

It should be obvious to anyone that the senior government and security officers or politicians who are assigned sensitive dockets, and very wealthy individuals who elicit jealousy from other citizens should need more security than the rest of us. But when a young lad, barely out of teenage, casually strolls into a restaurant or social place with a firearm strapped to his waist, then there is a problem. More often than not, such armed lads behave aggressively towards fellow patrons or revellers with the overt intention of showing off their might. I have also noticed, rather sadly, that young firearms holders often tend to get into bar brawls, and as is expected, very easily whip out their guns. Guns are not whips, and once drawn, can very easily exterminate life.

Unknown to the excited gun-wielding lads, they could easily be the victims of their own firearms. The question is whether anybody takes stock of the guns in the hands of private citizens, and if at all they are used for the purposes for which they were issued. Who checks if young security officers who are still excited about holding firearms sneak out with them to the wrong places? Is the disciplinary regime strict and deterrent enough to discourage abuse of licensed firearms?

Anybody who grew up in a family where a father or relative was a licensed firearm holder will confirm that most family members hardly ever knew that there was such a weapon in their household. As a matter of fact, most people only got to know of the existence of firearms in their homes upon the demise of the holders when the government asked for them to be surrendered back. I think the level of responsibility among security officers with respect to handling of firearms has significantly gone down. This should be a cause of worry not only for the disciplined forces themselves, but also citizens who come under constant risk of losing their lives to criminals or rogue security officers with firearms.

Many countries across the world appear to be copying Western Society where firearms have become indispensable in homes due to high crime rates.

Contrary to popular belief that widespread access to firearms by citizens enhances security, studies have shown that countries that are liberal with their gun policies tend to be more insecure. The USA, for instance, has been grappling with its gun policy for years, yet the country still finds itself in a quandary where placing more guns in private hands leads to more innocent and needless deaths. American society has a history of conflicts within itself and with enemies across the world. The very foundation of American society is mired in conflict. First, the European immigrants into the Americas exterminated the indigenous communities, including Red Indians, that predated them there. That horrendous act planted a seed of violence in the fabric of the USA society.

Shortly before the Industrial Revolution, the same Europeans invaded Africa, guns blazing, and outmanoeuvred terrified chiefs -and a few conniving ones- to drive millions of able-bodied black people in chains, to work their farms across the Atlantic Ocean, in what has mischievously been referred to as "slave trade." 

Trade is supposed to take place where there's a willing seller and willing buyer. There is no trade that takes place under duress. In the case of the slave trade, the heavily armed Europeans forked out the strongest and healthiest Africans from their continent of birth, drove them like lifeless objects across the Atlantic Ocean, and subjected them to hard labour and torture. The only offences that the black people may have committed were that their skin color was darker than that of the Europeans, and that they didn't have sophisticated weapons. The other problem that the USA faces is external. There was no trade that could have taken place in such circumstances. That was purely a question of forcibly instrumentalizing human beings. Period.

 The USA is fervently pursuing a policy of globalization, which simply means that the world is divided into the Western Civilization and the rest. Given its unique position as a wealthy superpower, the USA uses a carrot-and-stick policy to influence (read force) the world to embrace Western (read American) civilization. Clearly, in a highly diversified global community, any attempt to disrespect other people's cultures or worldviews is bound to cause conflicts. So, the twin problems of racial intolerance and forcing the world to see things from the prism of the Western Civilization are responsible for the insecurity that so characterizes American society.

The proliferation of firearms in the US is a response to the insecurity (real and perceived) in that society.

The security challenges that Kenyan society faces are radically different from what the US grapples with on a daily basis. The most common situations of insecurity in Kenya are caused by the cattle rustling menace in West Pokot, Turkana, Samburu, Baringo, Elgeyo Marakwet and Laikipia; Unstable and volatile security situations in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, and Djibouti; and political conflicts that lead to sporadic flare-ups of ethnic tensions during presidential electoral cycles. All these situations can and have been handled by security officers to various degrees of success, and therefore, do not warrant issuance of firearms to private citizens.

Those in support of liberalized firearms licensing have argued that Kenya is one of the countries in Africa that are producing billionaires at a very fast rate. These affluent individuals, they posit, require close protection from society. At least two problems arise from this argument. First, for people to become billionaires, they should have a verifiable track record of hard work and innovation.

Such hard work should be seen in terms of the industries, innovative products and services associated with the individuals. The same record should be verifiable through the consistent filing of annual income tax returns.

We have a unique situation in Kenya where billionaires emerge from the woodwork, demanding recognition from Kenyans who do not appear to either respect or know them well and their business activities. The vast majority of them are either beneficiaries of crony capitalism and tenderpreneurship, or outright products of crime. These people insist on having their security beefed up to protect them against the very citizens whom they have injured in one way or another in the course of their unbridled pursuit of opulence.

Nobody has attempted to explain why the average age of firearms holders is becoming lower and lower with the passage of time. One may put forward an argument in support of Nairobi as a recipient of an increased number of state officers, including MPs, requiring armed protection. While that is plausible, it does not account for the surging numbers of young people carrying firearms in the absence of the state officers they are supposed to be protecting, and the level of carelessness and aggressiveness displayed by the gun carriers.

The long and short of it is that Kenya is becoming increasingly dangerous to its citizens because of the sudden proliferation of firearms in the wrong hands.

The government could help us by first recalling most of the firearms that were officially issued to non-deserving individuals. Second, unlicensed firearms in the hands of citizens should be mopped up. Once most of the illegal firearms and those in undeserving hands are retrieved, the state should tighten its gun licensing regime to include psychological tests, monitoring, and accountability on the use of firearms by licensees. Only deserving individuals should have firearms issued to them. In addition, Kenyans should be sensitized on how to relate to armed individuals in public spaces. In my view, such a regime would make the Kenyan society more secure.

-Professor Ongore teaches at the School of Business and Management Studies, at the Technical University of Kenya.