The Private Security Regulatory Authority (PSRA) has revealed that it has received Cabinet approval to arm private guards.
This, in the immediate aftermath of the DusitD2 hotel terror attack, has sparked a furious debate.
In context, Kenya has slightly over 500,000 private security guards. If only half of them were armed, it would result in an additional 250,000 arms in the hands of civilians.
This compares poorly with the 51,527 guns in official hands (with the police) and would make the total number of arms in civilian hands to stand at 750,000, thereby increasing the guns-per-100-people ratio from the current 1:5 to 1:95.
This also compares poorly with Kenya's neighbours. Tanzania has 427,000 guns in civilian hands and 37,000 with the police and a ratio of 0.8 guns per 100 people, while Uganda has 331,000 guns in civilian hands and 54,000 with the police, with a ratio of 0.8 guns per 100 people.
There are 15 times more guns in civilian hands than in police hands in Kenya.
In Burundi, it is 10 times, Uganda six, Tanzania 11, Somalia 100 times, USA about 100 times and Sweden around 60 times.
In the East African region, Kenya has the highest civilian-to-police gun ratio at 15 (Somalia is a spurious case).
It is difficult to draw a relationship between any of the indicators, say between number of guns in civilian hands and homicides per year, or the number of guns in police hands and the homicide rate.
It is obvious, however, that a higher civilian gun per 100 people ratio in the USA has led to the highest homicide per year (19,103) in that country and that Somalia, with the highest gun ratio in East Africa region, has a moderate homicide per year (856).
Even more important is the lack of public perception and opinion data on whether more guns in the hands of private security guards will improve security in general and terrorism in particular; hence the need for wider consultations and genuine, comprehensive public engagement.
It is quite obvious that the relationship between gun ownership in private or police hands and homicides is very complex, and a simple increase in the number of guns in civilian hands may not result in less gun-related crimes or increased positive response to terror threats.
Indeed, anecdotal data indicate that having a firearm makes one more likely to be attacked as the criminal may want to rob you of the gun and also because the criminal perceives you as a mortal threat.
Kenya should, however, draw from her experience with arming police reservists in pastoralist areas.
These areas account for over 80 percent of the illegal firearms in civilian hands in the country and the use of guns in cattle rustling and other criminal activities has only increased.
Indeed, only mid last year, the police had their now-continual activity of mopping up illegal firearms in these regions.
Clearly, while arming home guards may have helped a lot, it is a typical example of the uncontrollable situation that you find yourself in when you arm civilians.
The reason people come together in a community to form a village, a clan, a location, ward, constituency, county and even a country is so as to ensure physical and social security.
Why is the government abdicating its responsibility of providing physical security yet this is its core duty, its raison d'être?
Also, have you imagined the kind of chaos that will prevail, not unlike the chaos in the public transport sector, if private security firms, most of the times family businesses, have 5,000, 10,000 or even 20,000 guns?
An individual private security firm in a county will have more guns than the police and could easily overrun the county’s police stations.
Factor in our very violent political contests: A politician could easily partner with a private security firm to sabotage security and overwhelm their opponents.
Therein lies the birth of legally sanctioned privately armed militias.
The argument by the PSRA that there will be laws, procedures for vetting and gun-safes would sell if we had not been recently reminded of the failure of the Ndegwa Commission recommendation that has been key in seeing corruption grow to where it is now.
The Ndegwa Commission also talked about institutions and laws that would check conflict of interest among civil servants, among others, all of which were never implemented or were ignored.
In any case, the existing structures that are supposed to regulate civilian gun ownership have only registered 5,000 guns (0.007pc) while there are 750,000 guns in civilian hands (apparently illegally).
But perhaps we are overreaching ourselves; the proposal was not as a response to increasing civilian insecurity but as a reaction to the Dusit terrorist incident.
One notes that armed crime is no longer targeting business premises, where the majority of these private guards are engaged.
These businesses are more worried about white collar robbery, crimes of discretion or cybercrimes. When was the last time you heard of a violent bank robbery?
Private guards should worry more than anybody else, though Al-Shabaab seems to target armed police more regularly and with greater ferocity; please don’t put a target mark on your forehead!
Whatever happens, we should not arm a group of privateers. First, because gun licensing is an individual issue not a group application.
Secondly, if we arm them because they feel they are in the front line, next we will have to arm teachers, then doctors, engineers, lawyers followed by priests and other civilian groups that feel equally threatened.
This is not to say that the private security guards don’t have issues that make them not only extremely vulnerable to injury/death in case of a terrorist attack but also helpless to prevent or respond to these attacks.
These issues revolve around welfare — low pay, working conditions, appropriate kits, security equipment (not limited to guns) and training.
Even more importantly is the issue of responsibility and deployment; it is not their responsibility to fight terrorists, they are neither mandated by law, trained nor equipped to fight terrorism, and thus we should not expect that they respond to or prevent terror attacks.
This is the core responsibility of the State - the police and army - and should not be privatised.
The proposal is extremely suspicious, taking advantage of the terror threats, to “legally” train and arm civilian groups in the name of private security guards.
It does not make us more secure — it makes a very small group of people very rich, very armed, very dangerous and thus very powerful.