The proliferation of guns--licensed or otherwise-- poses risks for all
The death, on Tuesday, of Radhika Tanwar at the hands of a stalker is heart-rending. A young life has been snuffed out for no fault of her own. A cowardly killer used the easiest method to kill her —shot the unsuspecting victim at close range with a country-made pistol and walked away. On Wednesday, a gun was used to shoot a couple and injure them grievously. Almost every other day a murder is committed with the use of a gun. It takes something to bludgeon or knife a person to death, pressing the trigger of pistol is much easier. The state has done little or nothing to make it difficult to get one and so, for the homicidally inclined, the gun has become the weapon of choice.
Guns were not always so easily available. In the 1960s when the Maoists decided to take on the Indian state in Naxalbari, in West Bengal, the only firearms they could muster were some 12 bore guns and hunting rifles looted from tea estates. In fact many of the Naxalites used pipe-guns made of ordinary water pipes.
Chambal had its dacoits and Mumbai its gangsters, but the easy availability of guns in northern India is a relatively recent phenomenon. Its epicenter lies in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the breakdown of administration in the 1960s and 1970s led to the proliferation of workshops churning out country-made weapons. Today’s Naxalites, of course, are armed with a variety of weapons — .303 rifles, SLR and INSAS carbines — many of which have come from government armouries by means that are not easy to determine.
Parallel to this has been the exponential growth in the availability of licensed arms. Till the 1960s, getting a gun license was quite difficult in India because of the hang-over of British colonial laws where the issue of licenses was closely linked to loyalty to the empire. But the rise of democratic politics saw a proliferation of gun licenses as newly rising castes saw gun ownership as much an issue of prestige, as to offset the perceived advantage of their upper caste rivals.
In India strict gun-control laws were an outcome of the imperial necessity. The eighteenth century, in which the British fought their way to dominance in the Indian subcontinent, was a very violent one. Given the Mughal mansabdari system, armed men owing allegiance to their feudatories were scattered across India. With the breakdown of Mughal authority, India, particularly in the north, saw a long period of anarchy where petty rajas and landlords vied with each other for control, and the British by virtue of their superior military organisation and world view managed to prevail. Once they came to power, and especially after the 1857 uprising, they undertook a policy of systematically disarming the people through tough legislation and laws that made the ownership of weapons without license a major crime.
This was not very different from the system they had back home. In the seventeenth century, the British aristocracy created laws restricting hunting and gun ownership to the upper classes and denying them to the poor. The legacy of this continues to this day and UK has some of the toughest laws against owning guns. Civilians, regardless of the circumstances, cannot own handguns. Other guns, mainly for hunting and sport are strictly licensed.
But by themselves guns don’t kill. As the slogan goes, “guns don’t kill, people do.” It is true that the easy availability of guns promotes its use in crime in the US. The American right to bear arms is written into their constitution and has as its basis the history of the country which was liberated from the colonial yoke because the people had the firearms to turn against their British overlords. But, Switzerland with a similar history, i.e. where people fought for their freedom and were able to defend their country against their bigger European neighbours because they remained armed and ready for war, does not have the kind of crime statistics you see in the US.
It is a certain kind of a social and political milieu that provides the backdrop of their usage for violent ends.
In the US it is obvious in its stratified social system and ghettoisation of the minorities.
Unfortunately, the ambiance in India with its burgeoning urbanisation, poverty and social tensions make for an incendiary situation. Layer upon this a ruthlessly predatory attitude towards women and the weak, compounded by the breakdown in effective policing in most parts of India.
The big threat lies from unlicensed weapons. And these have proliferated widely. Making the weapon itself is not the problem, even the technology available to a village craftsman can do the needful. Ammunition is an issue, but leakages from the licensed system as well as from the police and the armed forces have created the problem. Last year, this paper reported how ammunition from CRPF armouries in UP managed to find its way to Maoists in the jungles of Chhattisgarh.
Given the rapid urbanisation of the country and the emergence of large unpoliced or poorly policed areas can result in the rise of criminal gangs who are not afraid of taking on the police. We already see some aspects of this phenomenon in the Ghaziabad-Meerut area of the national capital region. If something is not done to check the proliferation of country-made weapons, things could go from bad to worse.
The police need to first understand that there is a problem. The issue of misuse of licensed weapons is straightforward enough. Here the police need to not only strengthen the processes relating to the issue of licenses, but to also institute a process whereby which licenses can be withdrawn from people who could become a threat to society because of their possession of a licensed weapon. In other words, the licensing process should involve much more continuous monitoring.
As far as the country-made gun phenomenon is concerned, the challenge is vaster. One aspect of it is the location and destruction of workshops that produce them. The second is to break the supply chains of ammunition for such weapons.
The third, and most doable, is to leach away the weapons from those who possess them. Countries have tried different ways of doing this — Brazil, Zambia, South Africa have experimented with amnesty and cash bounties to encourage people to turn in illegal weapons.
What the Delhi police can easily do is to offer an amnesty, to start with, and then undertake a sustained drive to locate and seize these weapons. One way to do this is surprise search and seize drives where the police can seal off a mall, a market or a bus stand and search every person for hidden weapons. This will deter people from carrying the weapons around. For its part, the union government needs to pass laws that will enhance punishment for the manufacture, transportation and possession of illegal weapons.
If the police and the government throw up their hands and claim they cannot do anything, it may be a better idea to make licensing easier and encourage the ordinary citizen to become a gun-owner and train them in the use of guns.
At least this will be able to equalise the advantage that the criminals have vis-à-vis the common folk as of now.
Mail Today March 11, 2011