ST JOHN’S, Antigua, Monday May 15, 2017 – A plan to allow a gun manufacturer to set up shop in Antigua and Barbuda has been scrapped after public outcry.
Just hours after he had sought to defend the plan to set up a gun assembly plant in the twin-island nation, Prime Minister Gaston Browne issued a statement saying the decision was never ratified by Cabinet and that he himself had reservations about it.
His backtracking sparked questions from the opposition United Progressive Party (UPP) about whether he was being totally honest about the proposed deal.
On Saturday, after a letter from the proposed investor to a minister seeking assistance with legislation for the plant was leaked on a programme on local radio station Observer Radio, Browne called in and sought to clarify that the gun manufacturers would be operating within the Special Economic Zone, and would therefore be prohibited from distributing or selling handguns on the domestic market.
“These guns will be strictly for exportation and will be governed by regulations which will be taken to Parliament. So I just want to make that abundantly clear,” he said.
“There will be proper systems in place and it will be governed by legal regulations, and administrative practices [will be] put in place so they are not offered for sale in the domestic market.”
However, his comments were followed by criticism from members of the public who called in on the programme.
In a statement issued subsequently, in which he announced that negotiations on the proposed investment have ceased, Browne stated that only an informal undertaking was given to an Italian hand gun manufacturer to establish a hand gun factory in the Special Economic Zone.
“This occurred on an occasion while I was off island. I subsequently heard about it and indicated to the agent of the investor that it was a bad idea. I was told at the time that the guns would have been manufactured based on international standards and for exportation only, and that they would have not been eligible for sale in the domestic market. At the time, I maintained for various reasons that we should not proceed with the proposed investment,” he said.
“I thought it was a dead issue until yesterday, when it was brought to my attention that a letter was sent to a Minister to expedite the passage of the necessary laws and regulations to expedite the investment. This request was made despite the fact that the matter never came before the Cabinet for ratification.
“Having heard the public sentiments, which were in keeping with my own concerns, I directed [the Attorney General] to cease any further negotiations or discussions on this proposed investment. A firm policy decision will be taken at the next Cabinet meeting and communicated to the public…Ultimately, I am confident that the correct decision was taken,” he added.
But UPP leader Harold Lovell has suggested that the letter read on Observer Radio suggested that the plan was more advanced than Browne suggested.
“How is it you enter into these talks to the point where you are being asked to expedite and you’re being asked to move forward with the matter, and you’re quite happy to do so when there’s no leak on the radio waves so you have no concern, and then once the leak takes place you are prepared now to, I would say, breach the understanding that you would have had with the persons you had been speaking with?” he questioned.
“We also have to ask the question whether there are any legal implications whereby the people of Antigua and Barbuda could be called upon to make payment in compensation for any loss that may have been incurred by the persons they were dealing with,” Lovell added.