President Guillermo Lasso’s authorization of civilian possession and carrying of firearms drew widespread condemnation Monday although several organizations praised it. Critics said the new rule will lead to increased violence while others called it a “political stunt” that will have minimal impact.
In his Sunday night announcement, Lasso said private citizens should have the right to defend themselves “against the common enemy,” which he described as drug trafficking and organized criminal gangs. The president’s executive decree relaxes gun ownership and use rules that have been in place since 2011.
In Cuenca, representatives from the city’s four major universities blasted the annoucement.
University of Cuenca Rector María Augusta Hermida and vice rectors Leonardo Espinoza and Monserrath Jerves issued a statement claiming, “Studies show that the use of firearms increases homicides, femicides, suicides and social violence.” It added: “We object absolutely to the decree and urge the president to reconsider it.”
Salesian Polytechnic University Rector Juan Cárdenas Tapia said the new gun rules will “exacerbate conflicts and violence, causing serious consequences for citizens and for harmonious life in our society.” He said it was the government’s responsibility to provide security and law enforcement for citizens.
The leaders of Cuenca Catholic University and the University of Azuay issued similar statements.
Newly elected officials in Cuenca and Azuay Province also lodged complaints against the rules change. Prefect-elect Juan Cristóbal Lloret called it a “mistake” and said the National Police should be purged of “corrupt elements” and stengthened. Mayor-elect Cristian Zamora said: “I’m against it. I don’t think most citizens are prepared to take law enforcement into their own hands.”
Most of the reaction around the country was similar.
Diego Pérez, a Quito security expert says that arming citizens does not necessarily mean more security. “The problem is not common crime, but organized crime,” he said, “and because of its level of sophistication, civilians should be able to depend on the state for protection. Given the fire power and ruthlessness of the gangs, most armed civilians will not have the capability to protect themselves.”
He added that instead of reducing crime, more weapons on the street will increase it since criminals will have access to a greater supply. He also worries that the new rules will lead to the formation of paramilitary groups that claim to be protecting the public but who answer to no one.
Guayaquil security consultant Lautaro Ojeda says firearms in the hands of civilians will lead to an increase of “fatal mistakes.” Even though the new gun possession rules require training, he says, it is no match for that of “dedicated killers” who work for drug gangs. “Mostly, I am concerned about accidents and stray bullets killing innocent people.”
University professor Diego Pontón claims Lasso’s decree indicates the government’s failure to provide adequate law enforcement. “It sends the message that the government is giving up in its effort to fight crime and civilians must arm themselves against the onslaught. The government should admit it has a structural law enforcement problem and make serious changes to its approach and commit more resources to it.”
Pontón objects to the “nationwide reach” of Lasso’s decree, adding that the government should focus on areas where crime is exploding. “If you have a 250% increase in crime in Guayaquil and Manta and a 10% increase in Cuenca, where should you direct your attention?” he asks.
Some organizations praised the presidential decree, saying the public should have the right to defend itself. The leadership of Lasso’s CREO political party and the opposition Social Christians both applauded the new rules.
Several media commentators said concerns about the change of rules are exaggerated. “This is mostly a political stunt to prop up a failing president and I don’t think it will have much impact,” wrote political blogger William Burneo. “Almost anyone who wants a gun in Ecuador today can get one. It is widely known where to find them on the black market and there are a number of home factories that manufacture them.”
Burneo adds that the new requirements for legally carrying a weapon will discourage most people. “Yes, there is a procedure for procurement but why go through it when you can make a few phone calls and buy a gun from your neighbor?”