Child victims of stray bullets prompt Dominican government

Sunday, October 2, 2005

BANI, Dominican Republic -- Tania Diaz sits on the floor of her family's one-bedroom shack, lowering her head to hide her eyes.

The tall, thin 5-year-old was struck by a stray bullet that left her blind -- one in a series of random incidents of gun violence that has forced this Caribbean nation to reconsider its casual attitude toward firearms.

President Leonel Fernandez has called for a debate on the issue in a country where men walk around with pistols strapped to their belts and women regularly carry revolvers in their purses.

The obstacles are many: overcoming a cultural acceptance of gun possession, tracking down an unknown number of firearms smuggled in from neighboring Haiti and rooting out corrupt police officers who facilitate the illegal arms trade.

"Here you need to have your gun out so the criminals see it and retreat," said Jose Dia, a 33-year-old businessman who recently bought a 9 mm pistol in the capital of Santo Domingo.

Fernandez recently invited two children injured by stray bullets to appear on his weekly television to emphasize the need for gun control.

Dominican law has long required gun owners to conceal their weapons from public view. But the law is rarely enforced. Thousands of private security guards tote shotguns outside stores, gas stations, banks and private homes.

Revelers also fire into the air during national celebrations, shootouts at nightclubs are common and domestic disputes frequently end in gunshot deaths.

Last month, an argument during a meeting of regional politicians outside Santo Domingo ended in a shootout, leaving four dead and a dozen injured.

As a first step toward gun control, the government announced two weeks ago that people who renew or apply for new permits will not be allowed to carry their weapons unless they get special authorization.

The statistics on guns are staggering in a country of 8.8 million.

--At least 25 children have been killed or injured by stray bullets since January, say law enforcement officials and doctors at hospitals.

--1,719 homicides in the first eight months of the year, compared to 1,513 during the same period in 2004. Police estimate guns are used in 75 percent of homicides.

--190,000 registered firearms, including pistols, shotguns, rifles and automatic weapons used by the military, said Secretary of Interior and Police Frank Almeyda.

--Hundreds of thousands of illegal guns, the majority smuggled in from Haiti, which shares an ill-patrolled 225-mile border with the Dominican Republic.

As a first step toward gun control, the government announced two weeks ago that people who renew or apply for new permits will not be allowed to carry their weapons unless they get special authorization.

Earlier this year, a team of 300 police officers and soldiers began searching vehicles at checkpoints and stopping people carrying guns on the streets to ask for permits.

The team confiscates about 1,000 illegally possessed guns a month, Almeyda said. But efforts are hindered by rampant police corruption, he conceded.

"When a police officer tells me his gun has been stolen, I order an immediate investigation because he probably sold it," Almeyda told The Associated Press.

Gun rights advocates say permit laws are strict enough. Applicants must take a drug test, undergo a criminal background check and get a psychological evaluation. They also must train at a shooting gallery for a day.

"There is already a lot of control over gun sales," said Eduardo de la Rocha, a firearms importer in Santo Domingo. "And it's more dangerous to have a gun hidden than in the open."

Others warn that new laws on permits would be as ineffective as the old ones unless the government improves enforcement.

"In a country where visas and passports are falsified, obtaining a (permit) will be a child's game," said a recent editorial in El Caribe newspaper.

Gun violence has become a way of life in the poor neighborhoods of Bani, where Tania's family lives about 50 miles west of Santo Domingo.

In April, a stray bullet struck Tania's right temple and exited her left eye, severing her optic nerves and leaving her blind.

"At night, there are always a lot of shots. Sometimes they land on the roof," her mother, Amancia Diaz said. "We never go out. We are afraid."

Her daughter, once a leader in playing among her three younger sisters, still plays on some days, her mother said. "But often she sits on the floor, crying and kicking her feet, refusing to get up."

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