Firearms in Uruguay: Considering new approach
An exclusive article for the montlhy newsletter “En la mira – The Latin American Small Arms Watch.” Click here for subscriptions and for previous issues.
Colonel Marcelo M. Montaner*
As in many of the world’s civilized countries, our country controls the existing firearms and ammunition within its territory. It operates as such since the year 1943, based on Decree-Law Nº 10.415 of February 13 which, along with its regulatory decree, provides precise indications that today can count on a legal framework. It was naturally integrated into the body of other modifying and adequate instruments that regulate this theme. This circumstance makes of Uruguay a pioneer in our region and most certainly demonstrates felicitous evidence of professionalism on the part of the Army, which resorts, in applying these norms, to the Arms and Related Material Service in carrying out one of its various missions.
Within its structure one finds the National Arms Register, with that specific function. Thus the import of firearms and ammunition is inspected and controlled in the country. They are monitored following their entry, and the transfer of arms possession between individuals, controlled - as are amateur arms collectors, ammunition reloads, arms dealers, arms counterfeiters and, of course, the commercial businesses operating in this field. There are no arms or ammunition factories in Uruguay nor does it export arms.
It is also the Register’s mission to receive, deposit and dispose of arms and ammunition which, for any reason, have been involved in unlawful acts. For this end it has relied on a Judicial Depot, which holds today somewhere near 14’500 arms sent by the Justice System. These arms remain in abeyance before for their definitive destruction, while being kept for the legal period of 3 years for their reclaiming, to expire.
Arms commerce: The State and the citizens
Conventional small weapons and light arms are essential for the internal security and international sovereignty of countries. According to what the United Nations Chart establishes, States have “the inherent right to act in self-defense.” This being the case, the control of the legal commerce of arms must be reinforced, to ensure they are not diverted to another destination than the one to which they were originally and legally intended, that is, the importing countries, within the framework of their juridical norms. The desired aim is that the arms reach the appropriate hands – that is, the Armed Forces, the Police and besides, in our country, possibly the private citizens who fulfill the legal requirements to possess a firearm in a responsible way.
We can extract two key issues from the preceding considerations. In the first place we mention the legal commerce and we will then talk about the responsible possession of arms. In both cases we will be brief. Legal commerce, namely that which is carried out, as the name itself describes, within the legal framework of the countries intervening in the operation - exporter, importer, and sometimes a country of transit - must be protected and reinforced through the implementation of realistically possible and appropriate controls. This condition and furthermore, the adequate and updated registry of the firearm owners, are essential to help combat the affliction which hits countries so hard – among other reasons because of its links between illegal traffic and criminality. For this reason, during the last decade, most of the world’s countries (and Uruguay was no exception) have held meetings in different international forums, such as the UN, OAS and Mercosul, to draw strategies intended to prevent, combat and eradicate the illegal traffic between countries. This included constraining the States to carry out a series of legally binding inspection and control tasks that is, to make the results of deliberations immediately accepted as a juridical norm, effectively making the transgressor liable to sanctions. These activities, in the form of conferences, seminars and other meetings, always count on the presence of delegations which outline their position on the theme, and are very useful for the exchange of experiences - the result of the different situations depending on the country – but which, when adapted to our reality, can serve (as afore mentioned) to reinforce these importation and commerce controls.
The second aspect, that is, responsible possession, relies on the private citizen.
Firearms are considered a movable asset, and as such integrate the concept of property, which our Constitution protects and recognizes. The legal framework mentioned initially (law-decree and regulating decree) thus allows citizens to behave freely, as long as they do it responsibly. No doubt this rule is reflected in the registry of firearms with the competent authorities, that is, in this case, the National Arms Register of the Arms and Related Material Service. There are those in our society who like firearms – and they can legally possess arms providing that they comply to the norms, but there are also those who are not interested in them or who think that they represent a potential danger in the home, and still those who strongly disagree with them. All cohabit and must live together. A proactive attitude by the State seems the reasonable option, one which takes into consideration all of these opinions, counting on a single and trustworthy registry, such as is the case in our country, with over 60 years of experience.
On the other hand, this instrument is absolutely necessary for being the tool useful to Justice and the Police each time they need to investigate events involving arms. To prove this point, between May of 2005 and May of 2006, 935 requests for information were responded to, an average of 80 per month related to arms or to people.
However, one must remember that this theme is not the exclusive jurisdiction of the S.M.A. Other branches of public services also have jurisdiction in their respective areas of competence. It is therefore necessary to maintain a high level of coordination among the various State Secretariats, united at present in an Inter-ministerial Commission created by a recent decree of the Executive Power. This organization implies a higher administrative level of coordination to relate to the prevention, fight and eradication of illegal arms and ammunition trafficking. Within that body would be representatives of the Ministries of External Relations, of the Interior, of Cattle-raising, Agriculture and Fishing, of Public Health, of the the Customs National Directorate, of the Judicial Branch as well as representatives of Non-Governmental Organizations involved in this issue.
License, possession and carrying are different concepts
We insist on the notion of License. Together with Possession and Carrying, they are the three points upon which rest the concept of firearms in Uruguay. We will explain below.
As mentioned above, a License implies in the permission a State concedes to a Person to have a gun. They are allowed by the Head Office of the Police in the Department where the citizen resides. The applicant requires a clean police record certificate (until recently called good behavior); a certificate of psycho-physical fitness which demonstrates his or her aptness to handle firearms; proof that he or she was approved for taking a course to learn the use and security of firearms, as well as proof that he/she exercises a legitimate activity. The referred-to documentation listed guarantees the concession of a Letter (Title) of Qualification for the Acquisition and Possession of Firearms (Thata in the original acronym Spanish), and is conceded to the person, regardless if he/she already has an arm or not. But if he/she wishes to buy one it is necessary to have this document, which is valid for 5 years. Both civilians and low-ranking members of the armed forces need the document.
Then we have the Possession. This is conceded by the S.M.A, in the headquarters of the National Arms Register, which also has an office in the center of the Capital, to make the document handling easier for those interested, considering primarily that many come from the interior of the country with the specific purpose of obtaining the document. Once the firearm is duly registered the concerned party is handed a Guideline for the Possession of Arms, valid for a period of 10 years. To obtain this document it is necessary to hold a valid Thata. Thus, the document links the specific firearm with the person whose complete record we possess, based on the form which has been filled out. The form can easily be obtained on the internet, on the website www.rna.gub.uy. On that website one can also find a variety of data on the subject of arms, including the afore-mentioned legal framework. If we were to cite an example helping to understand it better, by analogy using the automobile, we could say the License (Thata) would be the driver’s license, while the Possession would be the vehicles’ legal documentation. Just as it is not necessary to have another license to drive more then one vehicle, there is no need to have another Thata to possess more than one firearm.
At last, there is the Carrying. This document is only necessary for those who wish to carry an arm, that is, carry it on their belt, on the body, in a handbag, for immediate use. It must also be obtained at the Department’s Police Headquarters. To sum it up, the License and the right to carry are conceded by the Department’s Police Headquarters, while the Possession is conceded by the S.M.A.
The destruction of arms is undertaken annually at the Gerdau-Laisa metal works factory. But why are arms destroyed, many of them in perfect shape? Our country adopted a law in 1990 – based on the preceding decree Nº 311/978 of 1978 – making the destruction of arms mandatory after a six year term in the S.M.A.’s Judicial Deposit. The arms are conveyed to the S.M.A. by judicial order, and, if they are not reclaimed – their return also requiring a judicial order –, a final destination must be found for them. This can be a military museum (considering the arm’s characteristics), the possibility of being used by the armed forces (this happens to very few arms, since they are usually revolvers or shotguns which have nothing in common with these forces’ armament), or, still, they are melted and destroyed. This last solution is the one favored by the different international judicial instruments to which our country adhered, and some have legally binding characteristics. One clear example is the United Nations Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects. Created in 2001, it reflects the strong concern of most of the international community’s countries with regards to the proliferation of arms and ammunition, and calls upon concrete actions to be taken by the States. It is noteworthy that our country had been implementing the treaties’ recommendations well before they came into effect, since it destroyed more than 20’000 small arms, short and long. Today, the period a weapon remains in judicial deposit has been reduced from six to three years, following the change in legislation proposed by the S.M.A.. If well cared for, firearms have a very long useful life. Destroying them is doubtlessly a very efficient way to withdraw arms from circulation, avoiding their return into inappropriate hands.
The illegal arms market
The illegal market of arms is much talked about. It refers to weapons which have not been duly registered. Its magnitude is very difficult to quantify, but we can, however, offer a few thoughts on the subject.
First, several situations must be considered, like that in which the original owner died and didn’t ensure the transfer while still alive; or cases of people living in the country’s interior and facing travel difficulties to bring the arm to the capital; or still the lack of information - among other hypotheses existing for an arm not having been registered. The S.M.A. thus took decentralizing measures, moving to different places in the country’s interior and providing information so as to convince people who own irregular arms to register them. One should also not forget our population’s hunting habits, translated into the high number of long arms, shotguns and rifles.
We have illegal situations as well. They usually involve arms in the hands of criminals, who acquired them through theft, or through barter exchange, generally breaking the law. The characteristics of the firearms have often been changed, especially their serial number and tracking marks, to make the tracing usually occurring after a crime, more difficult, and with the intention of complicating the access of the authorities to the persons related to that particular weapon. This circumstance is, incidentally, punished by our penal code.
One must remember that the characteristics of our borders with Brazil and the existence of cities shared by both countries, allowing road traffic to flow freely across the border, often makes it impossible to carry out adequate administrative controls.
There are no unique and indisputable scientifically based methods to quantify the illegal market. One must be very careful in this case, because it involves the risk of creating a kind of social panic at a time in which the insecurity of persons seems to be getting worse. Objectively, it is noteworthy that only 52% of the questionnaires about arms handed over to the authorities involved a registered arms, but it is impossible to use this same figure to determine the number of illegal ones, because obviously criminals don’t register their arms with the S.M.A. nor do they – normally – use registered arms. Nor is it possible to extrapolate data from our neighboring countries, or from countries outside the region, because they present very different geographical and social realities from ours. Furthermore, their national registering services began functioning more than 30 years after ours did and it is thus clear that their data represent different situations which make it hard to make valid statistical inferences.
Clearly this issue raises an enormous challenge which must be faced by all: by the State through the competent authorities and by society, which must offer its support to the registering processes of the S.M.A. and, fundamentally, elevate the control over its firearms. This will eventually avoid thefts, which is the way by which criminals most often acquire arms.
To come to a close, we would like to suggest to the public a few points to consider, after the decision has been made to own a firearm.
1 - Don’t buy it at the next corner’s market. It will of course be much cheaper but the buyer will soon have licensing and ownership problems. Arms must be acquired in stores duly registered at the S.M.A., with a certificate posted in a visible place. In the case of second hand arms, make sure that the vendor is the legal proprietor.
2 – Check the tracking marks. If they have been falsified, there will certainly be problems since, as mentioned above, it is illegal and punished with prison. If you have an arm with poorly visible marks, bring it to the S.M.A. It will be remarked there at no costs, and a new license will be conceded.
3 – If the owner of an arm dies, the heirs must decide if they will transfer it to a third party – providing there is a Thata of course – or if they will hand it over to the Service to be destroyed. In both cases disagreeable inconveniences will be avoided, if, for example, the arm is stolen and used by delinquents.
4 – He or she who has an arm and doesn’t want to keep it any more, for any reason whatsoever (lack of knowledge on how to use it, lack of security, fear of accidents or any other inconvenient situation at home and in the neighborhood) can hand it in at the S.M.A.’s headquarters for later destruction, thus resolving what could become a problem.
Summing it up, the intention is to raise the consciousness of people in general about this issue. Arms cannot anymore be considered, as they used to be, simply one more part of our assets, without taking into consideration the social dynamics of our time, which is the reflection of a different, conflict prone and complicated situation. In this context, the Orientals (that is, the Uruguayans) know that the Arms and Related Material Service, with over 164 years of existence, and the National Arms Register, with almost 65 years of xperience registering, inspecting and controlling firearms, as the official and competent authority, has demonstrated unquestionable leadership in the field, and established itself on the national scene – with other State services – in favor of the Uruguayan citizens’ well being.
National Arms Register
Av. de las Instrucciones 1925
Tel.: 354-03-26/7 – Telefax: 355-41-53
City-center branch: Soriano 1080 corner with Paraguay
Cel: 099 593 657
Email: [email protected]
Internet website: www.rna.gub.uy
* Cavalry Colonel, currently serving in the Arms and Related Material Service (SMA) as Chief of the National Arms Register since 2005. He participated in various national and international conferences and seminars as speaker on this theme.