In the La Garita Polígono – shooting range – the ground is covered by bullet casings. In a property that measures about half a hectare, most of the land is dedicated to a large shooting practice area where amateurs gather. At 74, Enrique Rodríguez, owner of the Polígono, is one of them.
Rodriguez grew up in San Jose, but his family had farms in different parts of the country and for his father to carry a firearm was like carrying a “machete”. In fact, the first time Rodriguez fired a gun he was 10 years old.
“My dad had between four or five 45 or 19 caliber pistols. Also, a couple of revolvers and a couple of rifles,” Rodriguez told La Nacion’s Revista Dominical. “Since I was little they showed me what a weapon was: a tool,” he explains.
As a young man, he was an Olympic shooting competitor and has “about four or five pistols and a shotgun”. All stored in a safe in his home.
Don Enrique is disturbed, he says keeping a gun is more for safety than for sport. He feels that Costa Rica has become more insecure.
It seems that this hunch also disturbs many other Costa Ricans.
In 2016, the Encuesta Actualidades de la Escuela de Estadística de la Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR) – Survey of the School of Statistics of the University of Costa Rica – used a probabilistic sample of 1,059 people where 53.6% of the population considered that the insecurity in the country was high or very high.
This figure is high.
Too high if compared to other countries in Central America.
For 2016, Latinobarómetro, a public opinion study of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), found that Costa Rica self-perceives itself more insecure than nations such as Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, even though for the same year, Honduras had a homicide rate of 59.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, while Costa Rica’s was 11.8.
Stealthily, along with this growing perception of insecurity, the number of firearms legally owned by Costa Ricans has increased. Between 1990 and 1999, the average number of weapons registered was 5,696 per year (personal and corporate combined). In the period between 2010 and 2018, the number rose to 6,277.
However, an analysis of the ControlPas database of the Ministry of Public Security (MSP) and the judicial yearbooks of the Judicial Branch suggests that those cantons where there is a greater number of weapons tend to have higher homicide rates than those with the least amount of weapons.
“The case of Costa Rica is paradigmatic,” says Douglas Durán, coordinator of the Latinoamericano de las Naciones Unidas para la Prevención del Delito y la Justicia Penal (Ilanud) – Latin American Institute of the United Nations for the Prevention of Crime and Criminal Justice. “It is the safest country in Central America, but there is a feeling of insecurity that greatly exceeds victimization and has serious consequences because it prevents the formulation of prevention policies.”
One of these policies is the recent reform of the Ley de Armas y Explosivos N° 7530 (Weapons and Explosives Law), which reduced the number of (legal) weapons allowed per citizen from three to two. This result came after a heated debate in the Legislative Assembly.
While Durán thinks that the norm is still too permissive, Rodríguez believes that it is limiting. However, both are at a mid-point: they agree that a reform of the law was necessary.
The country of peace began to arm itself
When Enrique Rodríguez fired a gun for the first time he felt the excitement. As a child, he played marksmanship with tin cans and eventually this passion, as he says, materialized with the opening of the shooting range in the 1960s.
As well as his father, he was in charge of teaching his five children to use a weapon, three of them with service in the U.S. military. Talking about types of bullets and calibers is a typical family conversation, a tradition.
“The polígono was used by very close people or members of the Fuerza Publica (police). Then I started renting it for enthusiasts and people who wanted to get permits,” he says. “Now the weapon is a necessity for security and threats in general.”
He admits relieved that he has never had the need to use any of his weapons outside the shooting range.
Costa Rica is home to 246,669 legally registered weapons as at 2018, according to data from the MSP. Of these, 83,053 are in the hands of corporations and 107,882 of natural persons. Another 55,734 were registered before 1988 and therefore their ownership is not detailed.
Currently, in the country without an army, there is a -legal – weapon for every 20 people.
The increase in gun ownership is accompanied by a growing wave of violence in the country. According to the Judiciary, in 2000 there were 6,280 registered weapons and the homicide rate committed with firearms was 3.3.
But in 2008, as the number of registered weapons sored ot 14,677 the homicide rate committed with firearms more than doubled, it closed the year at 7. In 2018, the rate was 8.0.
According to the Ministerio de Seguridad Pública the province with the greatest number of registered weapons is San Jose (11,604 weapons registered between 2013 and 2018) has maintained one of the highest homicide rates in the country for nine years, and in 2018 it was 9.48 per 100,000 inhabitants.
On the flip side, Guanacaste (with 1,087 registered weapons) had a rate of 2.35 for 2018.
The growing violence in the country goes beyond the possession of weapons. Yes, there is a correlation with the number of homicides, but it is not the only thing that should be taken into account.
Added to the complexity of the phenomenon of a more violent society, other factors converge that end up aggravating the environment that a community can live. A canton with few registered weapons can also have a high homicide rate.
“For example,” Durán explains, “situations of social exclusion such as lack of access to education, decent living and employment generate societies where there is more crime and insecurity in general.”
Wave of violence
Over the last few years, Latin America has been involved in a wave of greater violence. Although this is less evident in Costa Rica, the country does not escape from the phenomenon, especially when it comes to firearms.
According to the report, Estado de la Violencia Armada en Costa Rica del 2018 del Ministerio de Seguridad – State of the Armed Violence in Costa Rica of 2018 of the Ministry of Security – 44% (3,820) of the weapons confiscated from the underworld were correctly registered. Of this total only 10% had been reported as stolen.
In the end, it is undeniable that a large part of the weapons registered to mitigate insecurity are eventually used to commit criminal acts.