Monday, December 17, 2012

Gun Violence in India: Tougher Laws or Tougher Implementation?

Gun violence and death from shootings don't just occur in the United States. Yes, I am stating the obvious. But sometimes, the obvious needs to be stated, repeatedly, in the hope that someone, somewhere will sit up and take notice. The terrible tragedy that occurred yesterday in Newtown, Connecticut, other such tragedies - Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora - in various places in the United States over the years, as well as the terrible toll gun violence takes on the lives of both victims and survivors, have at the very least ensured that some sane, sensible, rational people somewhere in this country are talking about it, expressing outrage, creating awareness and encouraging discussion on this issue. Perhaps some good may even come out of it.

Sadly, this awareness and understanding appears to elude some nations altogether. Take India, for example. Over the weekend, while people in the US were grieving over the Newtown tragedy, in North India an alcoholic, unemployed man shot dead his teenaged son on Saturday, for something as trivial as having been denied his "full share of dinner". Early on Sunday, in another part of North India, a young man shot at a waiter in a restaurant, angered by the waiter's refusal to eat the food the young man and his friends left over.

Already grief-stricken over the recent loss of innocent lives in Connecticut, I was benumbed by these fresh reports of gun violence from India, the country of my birth. Where is this nation headed? Patralekha Chatterjee of DNA India has raised the same question in her column today. - an international firearm injury prevention and policy forum, hosted by the University of Sydney School of Public Health - has some interesting, not to mention alarming, statistics related to guns in India, current as of 2011. The estimated total number of privately held firearms by civilians in India was 40 million in 2011, which puts the country second to only the US, according to data from 178 countries; of these 40 million, only 6.3 million guns appear to be registered. A decade long survey of gun violence-associated deaths (1999-2008) showed annual numbers ranging from about 6200 to about 12300, of which homicides accounted for 4000-9000 deaths.

And this state of affairs exists despite the current laws and regulations in India, which are considered "restrictive", because they place the onus of meeting certain conditions on the prospective firearm buyer. In India, all aspects of legal possession of manufacture, sale, transfer, transport, export and import of small firearms, light weapons, as well as ammunition, are guided by the Arms Act (1959) and Arms Rules (1962), modeled after equivalent British laws. Under the Indian Constitution, there is no Right to bear arms. Civilians are also prohibited from possession of fully automatic weapons, as well as weapons that can launch substances associated with chemical warfare. However, semi-automatic assault weapons, as well as handguns, are permitted under licence, which may be obtained subject to a mental health, domestic violence, and criminal background check, upon provision of genuine reasons to possess a firearm (e.g., target shooting, personal protection, hunting, et cetera). State authorities, as well as dealers, are required to maintain a record of civilian individuals licensed to buy, keep or sell guns. Gun owners, restricted by law to 3 firearms in private possession and 25 rounds of ammunition per purchase, are required to re-apply and re-qualify for their firearm licence once every three years.

There are, however, some important lacunae which the existing laws haven't addressed.
  • Although criminal background, mental health status, and past history/likelihood of domestic violence are supposed to be checked prior to issuing a firearm licence, licensing authorities are not required to conduct interviews with, or to advise an applicant's spouse, partner, or next of kin before issuing a gun licence.
  • In addition, political connections and/or bribery seem to be able to bypass the legal restrictions for the procurement of guns. In August 2012, BBC broke the news that many Indian Parliamentarians easily buy guns despite having criminal cases pending against them.
  • There is no provision for requirement of any theoretical understanding of firearm safety and the law, and/or practical efficiency in handling a firearm for a licence to be applied for and obtained.
  • Although private sale/transfer of firearms is prohibited and a valid gun dealer's licence is a sine qua non for firearms business, gun shows and temporary firearm dealing events are not regulated in law.
  • Although there are written specifications for safe storage of private firearms and ammunition by licensed gun owners, that by dealers is unregulated. By law, each firearm, whether manufactured in India or imported, is required to bear a unique identifying mark; however, State authorities do not carry out tracing and tracking procedures (including ballistic fingerprinting) to trace guns and ammunition.
  • Although the illicit possession of firearms is punishable with short (1-3 years) imprisonment by law, the existing laws cannot deal effectively with the flourishing trade in illegal firearms, with which most crimes - including murder - are committed, according to a 2011 estimate by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The illegal guns are either fashioned in local, clandestine factories in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar (such locally made guns are called "katta" or "tamancha"), or manufactured abroad and smuggled into the country. A 2010 report to the United Nations indicated that since early 1990s, the security forces in the northernmost and north eastern areas were able to seize approximately 48000 weapons of all types, smuggled into India.
A Delhi-based organization, India Arms Violence Assessment, established in 2010 for the promotion of evidence-based analysis of violence in Indian life, maintains on their website a collection of news items related to violent crimes in India; the list is replete with news of armed violence.

Exacerbating this dismal scenario is the glorification of guns and gun culture in popular media, including movies. Violent situations involving guns are, and have long been, a staple in many of the Bollywood blockbusters. And so far it appears that art, in this case, imitates real life faithfully; to quote a few examples here:
  • December 2007: an Eighth-grade student in Haryana in North India shot his classmate dead with his father's gun, because of enmity between the parents.
  • January 2008: another Eighth-grade student was gunned down in school by a senior student in Madhya Pradesh.
  • February 2010: a young groom was shot to death when a celebratory gunshot - long declared illegal by Indian authorities - by his uncle went terribly awry.
  • March 2011: a young student was gunned down in broad daylight in front of her college in Delhi.
  • September 2011: a young toll-collector on the Delhi-Gurgaon Highway in North India was shot dead by a commuter over an altercation about the toll amount of Rupees 27 (about 50 cents).
  • November 2012: a Delhi teenaged girl was shot dead because her father had objected to the assailant urinating on their staircase.
  • November 2012: A controversial liquor baron was shot dead by his brother, who was in turn shot dead by the former's friend and employee, at a farmhouse in Delhi.
There are some who have been sounding the voice of reason. In 2004, the Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI) was established by a group of Indian citizens concerned about issues surrounding armed violence in India; it is a member of the International Action Network on Small Arms, a global movement against gun violence, proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. A tireless voice on the subject of the rise of gun violence in India has been that of Dr. Binalakshmi Nepram, cofounder and current secretary general of CAFI; Dr. Nepram, winner of several prestigious peace awards including the 2010 Sean McBride Peace prize in Oslo, Norway, grew up amidst armed conflicts in the Northeastern State of Manipur, and founded the Manipur Women Gun Survivor Network to assist and empower women whose lives have been destroyed due to gun violence. Along with CAFI, she continues to speak out on various armed violence related issues, and campaign for the International Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), an evolving model for a legally-binding international agreement seeking to establish basic rules for regulation of the international arms trade that is known to foment armed conflicts in different parts of the world.

A matter of great concern in this regard is the formation and growing political clout of a pressure group of Indian gun-owners and gun-enthusiasts, the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI), an organization modeled after the NRA of the United States. Citing low police-to-citizen ratio in India, NAGRI advocates arming the citizens for their own security - thereby throwing open the question whether increased gun ownership translates to increased security. This is almost a rehash of the same arguments made by NRA in the US. Many studies have questioned the assertion that guns would protect the possessor from being shot in an assault. In a 2009 study, epidemiologists at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that, on average, people with a gun were 4.5 times more likely to be shot in an assault than those not possessing a gun. Assessment of the existing literature on guns and homicide by the Injury Control Research Center of the Harvard School of Public Health uncovered substantial evidence that indicates more guns means more murders. This is also corroborated by the experience in Australia, which enacted tougher gun laws after gun-violence massacres, Japan, and Israel and Switzerland, where gun ownership is regulated.

Driven by her vast experience of tragedies associated with gun violence, Dr. Nepram rejects the idea that more guns in the Indian life would mean more security. She says: "I was born and raised in one of worst conflict zones of India. For me guns are crutches. They show your weakness, not your strength. Studies show that the chances of you or your loved one being shot dead is higher when you have a gun at home. The chances of your weapon being used against you are higher."

Golden words, and I hope that the Government of India pays heed to those, despite the inevitable pushback from the pressure groups. However, even with tougher gun control legislation, they may be one problem: the law would likely affect new gun sales, but not be effective retroactively. In UK, after the infamous 1996 Dunblane massacre which led to handgun bans, the UK citizens came forward to surrender 160,000 handguns. I, sadly, don't see that happening in India. Therefore, alternative measures, such as regulation of ammunition, absolute requirement of safe storage of guns outside one's residence, as well as a reduction in the porosity of India's international borders to make illegal gun imports difficult, would be necessary. But perhaps the greatest change will come, if ever, only from a change in the mindset of Indian citizens; perhaps, with activist-leaders like Dr. Nepram, there is still hope.
Further reading:
  • Alpers, Philip, Marcus Wilson and Belinda Gardner. 2012. Guns in India: Facts, Figures and Firearm Law. Sydney School of Public Health, The University of Sydney., 12 July. Accessed 17 December 2012. at:
  • A few words by Binalakshmi Nepram on what motivates her.