A 10-year-old boy was accidentally shot dead by his 12-year-old neighbour while they were playing cop and thief in West Delhi earlier this week. On 24 September, 23-year-old toll attendant, Umeshkant Pandey, was shot dead by the driver of a white Bolero. His crime: he asked the driver to pay Rs 27 as toll tax.
Gun crime has consistently been on the rise in India, and every few weeks, there is a new tragedy. An armed gang shoots a woman over a small piece of jewellery, a disgruntled stalker shoots a college-going girl because she does not acknowledge him. The common denominator is easy access to firearms. Anyone can be armed and dangerous these days. All it takes is a little money — and not as much as you'd think.
India reportedly accounts for 40 million firearms, of which only 5.5 million are licensed and in civilian hands. We have the second-highest total in the world, after the US, though it amounts to only four 4 for every 100 people in India compared to 90 guns for every 100 Americans.
Gun ownership in India is a 'privilege' under the Arms Act of 1959 which allows civilians to procure a license if they can prove threat to their life. Proving the 'threat' is not too difficult — the right FIR would do — but the process of getting an approved license is long and tedious.
Solution? An unlicensed market that thrives on smuggled and homegrown firearms.
Gurjeet Chaddha (name changed), just 21-year-old, tells me that if you know the right people, getting a desi katta isn't a problem. The only hitch is that a desi katta comes without a guarantee and can, sometimes, even backfire. And unlike a pistol magazine which has six to seven cartridges, you can take only one shot with the desi. This 'little backfiring' problem doesn't bother Chaddha who is studying in UP. He says his parents don't know he owns one and although he's never had to use it, he likes to carry it because all his friends and girlfriends feel 'safe' and cool with him.
Getting a katta in Delhi can be pretty expensive, starting at Rs 25,000, says Chaddha, but in Meerut, Ghaziabad, or Muzzafarnagar, a desi is available for as little as Rs 2,500.
Twenty-four-year-old Suhan Shah (name changed) doesn't want to risk a katta: "Don't get the desi katta. It is made of wood and leftovers from used guns, usually in the local villages of Meerut or Ghaziabad. Meerut has a big factory where you can modify your gun to look a certain way; most looking for really cheap firearms head there." He is applying for a gun license in Delhi, instead. He has an import-export business in Noida and thinks it's important for him to own a gun because he carries a lot of cash, and is at a risk of getting robbed.
"I have applied for a license in Delhi and it's very tough to get one here. If I had applied for it in UP or Haryana, it wouldn't have taken as much time as it already has," says Shah. "But then again, I am hell bent on getting a license from here because a 24-year-old getting a licensed gun under his name is unheard of here. Usually you have to be 30 to get it but I am sure if I pull the right strings in the ministry, I'll manage (he laughs)."
He may be opting for the — sort of — legal route for the gun, but plans to rely on the unlicensed market for his ammunition. "When I get the license, mujhe .32mm ki gun chadhwani padegi on my approved licensed booklet. I will then get a magazine with six cartridges. As a rule, you can't get more than one full round of a magazine because you have to give proof and circumstantial evidence of where you have used the cartridges. In case you still want to get a pack of 24, you can find it in the gray market for Rs 2,500 to Rs 3,000," he explains.
Shah could have opted for an illegal gun outright but it is an expensive proposition. Getting a brand new gun without a license in the thriving gray markets of West Delhi costs Rs 8.5 lakh plus taxes. If you have a license, the same costs you Rs 2.5 lakh. People with deeper pockets usually opt for pistols and Mausers (.30mm automatics from Russia and Germany) that are far safer. One can even get second-hand World War 2 pistols where the manufacturer removes the chase number and give it a new one. These second-hand guns can cost you anything between Rs60,000 to Rs1,00,000. With the right connections, you can get doorstep delivery.
Shah says after hopefully getting the license from Delhi, Haryana and UP will be next on his agenda. As a parting note, he offers, "Meerut's no place for a girl anyway. Tell me, I'll put you in touch with the right people."
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Keenu Kathak (name changed) from Assam says his father has loads of guns from all over the world but prefers to carry an air gun: "I feel unsafe carrying dad's fully loaded one, but safer with the air gun. If nothing else, I can scare people off with it and if I do shoot, it's guaranteed to hurt someone at a very close range. I often go out with my girlfriend on long drives, and while the drives are cherished alone-time for us, there have been a lot of instances when we were chased down by goons in deserted places."
As the law and order situation in big cities deteriorates, many are taking up the responsibility to secure themselves. And it isn't just young men. Sujata Sharma (name changed), 48, a housewife, says, "My husband is usually on tours most of the time. After thieves broke into our house while I was out, locked up my mother-in-law in a room, wiped the house clean of valuables last year, my husband thought it was important for us to have a gun in the house. And you know what, I honestly feel safer with a gun in the house.
Part of this changing mindset is the growth of pro-gun organisations like NAGRI who now lobby for ending restrictions on gun ownership. Abhijeet Singh, founder of Indiansforguns.com, which claims to be India's largest guns, shootings and outdoors community, argues:
Most violent crimes involving firearms are committed using untraceable illegal guns. When a man holds a rifle, he becomes almost godlike. For some men, unquestionably, this power is going to be abused, just as some men will always drive a fast car at reckless speeds. For the vast majority of men, however, this power produces precisely the opposite effect: they are humbled by the power they hold, and they become more responsible in its use.
That is why, in a nation like the United States with well over seventy million gun owners, only a tiny fraction, less than half a tenth of one percent, use a gun to commit a crime each year. Also since the firearms would be registered with the Govt. along with the owners address, the type of the firearm, its serial number etc. Those (the criminals) who want to commit crimes will not and DO NOT bother to purchase firearms legally and register them. They can and do buy them from the black market (at a fraction of the cost of a legal firearm, I might add). Legal ownership will allow law abiding citizens to protect their and others life and property.
Whether lesser restrictions or cheaper arms and ammunition will help or hurt is debatable; and the issue has long polarised the Americans. But the risks of easy accessibility cannot be easily dismissed. In a nation where the courts are slow and often unable to deliver justice, there is little incentive for self-restraint. Besides, do we really want to raise a generation of kids who think it's 'cool' and 'safe' to be armed and dangerous?