Gun control problems not unique to US; firearm-related violence is spreading even across India

Available data seems to indicate that parts of India, particularly New Delhi, are going the same way as the United States in terms of gun control.

Tara Kartha October 05, 2017 18:51:19 IST
Gun control problems not unique to US; firearm-related violence is spreading even across India

Stephen Paddock is now part of American history, as a white 'terrorist' who gunned down 58 persons and injured more than 500, creating a record for one of the worst such attacks in the country. That record is, however, unlikely to last long. Paddock had 23 guns in his hotel room and another 19 at his home in Mesquite. But that's not something that should cause surprise in the United States, where guns are part of everyday life.

There are more than 300 million guns in civilian hands in the United States, with gun sales rocketing after every serious attack. For instance, gun dealers reported a fifty percent rise in sales after an earlier gun attack at San Bernardino, California. The reason for this was seen as either arising from a fear of personal safety, or an apprehension that the government was planning to restrict gun licenses. There is every likelihood that the same surge will be seen after this latest horrific shooting.

Gun control problems not unique to US firearmrelated violence is spreading even across India

Representational image. AFP

Statistics on United States' horrifying passion for guns are trotted out after every massacre without much effect on policy. For instance, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime notes that the US has more guns than Yemen, which has been fighting a debilitating civil war for decades, and where terrorists of nearly every persuasion have taken up office space. Another statistic notes that there are 88 guns for every hundred persons in the US. Even more staggering is that 100,000 persons are shot in the country every year. Yet, there hasn't been a single American President who had been successful in restricting gun ownership in the US, where the right to bear arms is seen as a fundamental right.

In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned Washington DC's ban on handguns on the basis of the Second Amendment which guarantees the right of a person to bear and keep arms. That was a huge victory for the National Rifle Association, a body which counts former US presidents among its members.

In recent times, President Donald Trump astutely stepped back from support to some minimal gun control measures, to proudly announcing his own weapons collection. Reports in the US media suggest that the NRA went on to support his presidential bid with more than $30 million, the largest tranche received by any US President from this particular lobby.

A pause to the throwing up of hands at all this skullduggery on foreign shores is however indicated. Available data seems to indicate that parts of India, particularly New Delhi are going the same way as parts of the United States. The National Crime Records Bureau, which is supposed to provide all crime-related data for the country, observed that more than 53,000 firearms were seized in 2015 under the Arms Act. There are two problems with this data. First, it is a given that most states don’t bother to report cases on time, or even when they do report it, are lackadaisical about their precision. So, actual figures are likely to be far higher. Second, the last data that the Bureau has is for 2015. So, that's not data, it's history.

The trends shown even in 2015 are, however, instructive even if unsurprising. The top states for incidents involving death by guns were Uttar Pradesh with 1,617 such incidents, followed by Bihar with 685 and then Jharkhand with 638 such cases. Madhya Pradesh followed with 189 deaths. Surprisingly, Jammu and Kashmir cases were only at 45 and Tamil Nadu with just one.

Here's a surprising fact though. In terms of death by licensed weapons, Bihar again comes at the top but is closely followed by Punjab. Again, the highest number of weapons seizures were not in the Naxal affected areas but Uttar Pradesh (24,498), which easily topped the list, followed by Madhya Pradesh (8,676), which together accounted for more than sixty percent of all seizures in the country.

Rajasthan comes third in gun seizures (6,030) while Kashmir again lags far behind with just 122. South Indian states showed the least attachment to weapons. Clearly, there is a cultural factor in play here. Anyone who had travelled in the central states will attest to the fact that nearly every man in rural areas carries a gun of some kind. In this, the north, with its turbulent history, sees guns as part of everyday life in much the same way that the average rural American does.

Of the 53,272 weapons seized, only 1,241 were factory made licensed weapons. This is hardly a cause for relief. Illicit gun manufacturers in Munger (Bihar) and Khargone (Madhya Pradesh) are getting better at their jobs. Both places were once the site of Ordnance Factories, and every family had at least one employee in this sector. Lathe machines abound, and with better materials available, these outfits can give regular manufacturers a run for their money.

Delhi's gun markets are supplied mainly from these areas, though a large part of cross-border illicit trade also feeds these markets.  According to reports, everything from a 12 bore rifle to an AK-47 is now available in the capital. Police reports point to the seizure of Walther PPK pistols, which are sold for about three lakh, and the German Mauser for a little less. These elegant weapons are then sold to dealers in Agra, Mathura and nearby areas, where such weapons are in great demand.

The Munger made arms are, however, good enough for Delhi's criminals. Not long ago, a policeman was shot when trying to stop bag snatchers. This indicates that guns have made their way considerably down the criminal chain. In other words, a law-abiding citizen is likely to be more under threat from gun violence, than before. The question then arises - are such citizens then justified in seeking a licensed firearm themselves?

The National Association for Gun Rights in India (NAGRI), a nascent gun rights group, argues just that. Their position is that the right to bear arms is part of our fundamental rights in the Constitution. Rather reasonably, it is argued that law-abiding citizens have progressively been denied their right to self-defence, with the government tightening the licensing of guns. The present government quietly overhauled the archaic Arms Rules of 1962 with a new set of rules, that while encouraging private investment in the gun business, also tightened licensing procedure.

There is also a new nation-wide database on gun licenses, which will technically, allow easier tracking of licensed weapons. All of this is excellent work by the home ministry. The trouble is that the vast majority of the weapons seized in criminal hands are unlicensed and unmarked. Even the Chinese automatic weapons that are available in gun markets all over the country have their manufacture and batch numbers sawed off. The gun-rights lobby, therefore, has a point. The illicit trade will continue, while the legal owners are in a bind.

One way out is to regularise the gun markets and manufacturers of Bihar and elsewhere, and provide them with quality training and machines, allied with strict oversight and control. The obvious problem is that any credible oversight in the Indian system is usually made a mockery of within a few years or less.

Alternatively, these units could be trained to provide specific parts for the larger manufacturers. This requires a transition from the present "mom and pop" manufacturing process, to one that is far more streamlined and professional, even while building on resident skills in these towns that are virtually part of a bloodline.

'Make in India' need not involve only the big guns. The locals also need to be brought on board. Policy needs to go in this direction to fuse both the large manufacturing initiatives together with a policy on crime control. No one can dispute that urban India is becoming altogether a more violent place to live in. As smart cities are becoming the norm, it might be smarter to start removing these small weapons of mass murder.

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