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Gun Ownership in India

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By Abhijeet Singh

Colonial Roots of Gun-Control

I live in India and I am a proud firearm owner - but I am the exception not the norm, an odd situation in a country with a proud martial heritage and a long history of firearm innovation. This is not because the people of India are averse to gun ownership, but instead due to Draconian anti-gun legislation going back to colonial times.

To trace the roots of India's anti-gun legislation we need to step back to the latter half of the 19th century. The British had recently fought off a major Indian rebellion (the mutiny of 1857) and were busy putting in place measures to ensure that the events of 1857 were never repeated. These measures included a major restructuring of administration and the colonial British Indian Army along with improvements in communications and transportation. Meanwhile the Indian masses were systematically being disarmed and the means of local firearm production destroyed, to ensure that they (the Indian masses) would never again have the means to rise in rebellion against their colonial masters. Towards this end the colonial government, under Lord Lytton as Viceroy (1874 -1880), brought into existence the Indian Arms Act, 1878 (11 of 1878); an act which, exempted Europeans and ensured that no Indian could possess a weapon of any description unless the British masters considered him a "loyal" subject of the British Empire.

An example of British thinking in colonial times:

"No kingdom can be secured otherwise than by arming the people. The possession of arms is the distinction between a freeman and a slave. He, who has nothing, and who himself belongs to another, must be defended by him, whose property he is, and needs no arms. But he, who thinks he is his own master, and has what he can call his own, ought to have arms to defend himself, and what he possesses; else he lives precariously, and at discretion." --James Burgh (Political Disquisitions: Or, an Enquiry into Public Errors, Defects, and Abuses) [London, 1774-1775]

And thoughts (on this subject) of the man who wanted to rule the world:

"The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subject races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed the subject races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty." -- Adolf Hitler (H.R. Trevor-Roper, Hitler's Table Talks 1941-1944)

The leaders of our freedom struggle recognised this, even Gandhi the foremost practitioner of passive resistance and non-violence had this to say about the British policy of gun-control in India:

"Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms, as the blackest." -- Mahatma Gandhi (An Autobiography OR The story of my experiments with truth, by M.K. Gandhi, p.238)

Post Independence

India became independent in 1947, but it still took 12 years before this act was finally repealed. In 1959 the British era Indian Arms Act, 1878 (11 of 1878.) was finally consigned to history and a new act, the Arms Act, 1959 was enacted. This was later supplemented by the Arms Rules, 1962. Unfortunately this new legislation was also formulated based on the Indian Government's innate distrust its own citizens. Though somewhat better than the British act, this legislation gave vast arbitrary powers to the "Licensing Authorities", in effect ensuring that it is often difficult and sometimes impossible for an ordinary law abiding Indian citizen to procure an arms license.

"A system of licensing and registration is the perfect device to deny gun ownership to the bourgeoisie." -- Vladimir Ilyich Lenin

Also the policy of throttling private arms manufacturing was continued even after independence. Limits on the quantity and type of arms that could be produced by private manufacturers were placed - ensuring that the industry could never hope to be globally competitive and was instead consigned to producing cheap shotguns, of mostly indifferent quality, in small quantities. A citizen wishing to purchase a decent firearm depended solely on imports, which were a bit more expensive but vastly superior in quality.

More Recently

This changed towards the mid to late 1980s, when the Government, citing domestic insurgency as the reason, put a complete stop to all small arms imports. The fact that there is no documented evidence of any terrorists ever having used licensed weapons to commit an act of terror on Indian soil seems to be of no consequence to our Government. The prices of (legal & licensed) imported weapons have been on an upward spiral ever since - beating the share market and gold in terms of pure return on investment. Even the shoddy domestically produced guns suddenly seem to have found a market. Also since the Government now had a near monopoly on (even half-way decent) arms & ammunition for the civilian market, they started turning the screws by pricing their crude public sector products (ammunition, rifles, shotguns & small quantities of handguns) at ridiculously high rates - products that frankly, given a choice no one would ever purchase.

"That rifle on the wall of the labourer's cottage or working class flat is the symbol of democracy. It is our job to see that it stays there." -- George Orwell, the author of Animal Farm and 1984, himself a socialist

Why Citizens Need to be Armed

Curtailing gun ownership, to curb violent crime, through denying licenses or making legal arms & ammunition ridiculously expensive is based on flawed reasoning. The fact is that licensed firearms are found to be used in a statistically insignificant number of violent crimes, motorcycles & cars are far more dangerous. The certainty that a potential victim is unarmed is an encouragement to armed criminals. Less guns, more crime. Most violent crimes involving firearms are committed using untraceable illegal guns. Terrorists or the mafia are not going to be deterred by gun-control laws, they will be willing and able to procure arms of their choice and use them to commit crimes irrespective of any laws. Ironically in India it is cheaper (by several times) to buy the same gun in the black market than it is to buy it legally!

"Gun control? It's the best thing you can do for crooks and gangsters. I want you to have nothing. If I'm a bad guy, I'm always gonna have a gun. Safety locks? You'll pull the trigger with a lock on, and I'll pull the trigger. We'll see who wins." -- Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, Mafia hit man

"The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms, like laws, discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside...Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them..." -- Thomas Paine, Thoughts on Defensive War in 1775

And from the world's gentlest human being:

"If someone has a gun and is trying to kill you, it would be reasonable to shoot back with your own gun." -- The Dalai Lama, (May 15, 2001, The Seattle Times) speaking at the "Educating Heart Summit" in Portland, Oregon, when asked by a girl how to react when a shooter takes aim at a classmate

It is, of course, no coincidence that the right to have guns is one of the earlier freedoms outlined in U.S.A.'s Bill of Rights. Without guns in the hands of the people, all the other freedoms are easily negated by the State. If you disagree with that statement, ask yourself if the Nazis could have gassed millions of Jews, had the Jews been armed with rifles and pistols--there weren't enough SS troops to do the job. Lest we forget, in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1944, a couple of hundred Jews armed with rifles and homemade explosive devices held off two fully-equipped German divisions (actually about 8,000 men) for nearly two months.

Closer home take the case of the Godhra carnage and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Would wanton mobs have slaughtered so many innocent people with such disregard to consequences if their potential victims had been armed and ready to defend themselves? A serious consideration should be given to an armed civilian population as a solution to religious and racial riots as well as other crimes. Since all criminals are instinctively driven by self-preservation allowing legal ownership of firearms by law abiding citizens would act as a serious deterrent. This will make sure that if the Govt. fails to do its duty to protect the life and liberty of its citizens (as it has so often done in India's recent past), citizens will be able to protect themselves. I'll take some potential objections and try to answer them:

Arguments & Counter-Arguments

Q1. Won't legal owners of arms use the firearms to kill and murder others?
Ans. When a man holds a rifle, he becomes almost godlike: suddenly, he has the ability to deal death and injury to another over a considerable distance--to send, as it were, a thunderbolt of Zeus. 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.

Q2. Won't there be a free for all during riots?
Ans. By definition riots ARE free for all. However, very few people will participate in riots knowing that a large number of law abiding citizens own firearms in the area. This will actually prevent riots. Riots are mostly started by miscreants (unscrupulous politicians?) who want to benefit from the chaos of riots. However, the risk (loss of life or limb) for the miscreant in starting and/ or participating in such riots, when a large number of the general civilian population owns legal firearms, is significant. Therefore in most cases miscreants will not dare to start riots in the first place.

Q3.What about domestic violence and firearms?
Ans. Domestic violence has nothing to do with firearm ownership. Firearms are merely a tool -- not the cause of violence, to quote a famous NRA slogan "Guns don't kill people, people kill people". Women in India face domestic violence even today with very limited legal gun ownership. If anything, legal firearms in the hands of women might help even the odds -- by removing the physical weakness of women from the equation.

Q4. What about accidents?
Ans. More people in India get killed in automobile accidents than firearm accidents. In countries where gun ownership rates are high like the United States (which has a firearm to population ratio of approx 96:100, i.e., almost 1 firearm for every man woman & child), Switzerland, New Zealand etc. several times more people die in road accidents than from firearm accidents. Firearm accidents can be further minimised by making a gun-safety course mandatory before a permit is issued - so long as this is not used as another excuse to delay or deny permits.

Q5. What about firearm assisted suicides?
Ans. A suicidal person has many different available ways to end his/ her life. Firearms are just another means for him/ her. Statistically suicide rates have little correlation with firearm ownership patterns. Many countries with strict anti-gun legislation have high suicide rates and vice versa.

Q6. Are there any working systems and what are the results?
Ans. Yes, for example in U.S.A., Switzerland, New Zealand. One must note here that different states in US have different degrees of gun ownership and firearm restrictions. Interestingly the states with more restrictions on gun ownerships have a higher crime rate than those that are less restrictive.

I do not condone violence or a violent solution to problems, but there can be no justification for not letting people be prepared to defend their own and their families' lives and property. When one is surrounded by mobs bent on setting you on fire and the like, in a country where policing is non-existent, owning firearms by people will have a great deterrent effect on mobs. Of course, if I could sue the police for not giving me complete protection, then I might feel differently (but don't count on it). But by law the State cannot be at fault for not protecting its citizens -- so if the cops take 25 minutes (or several hours) to respond to your call, and in those 25 minutes a criminal kicks open your door, shoots you and your wife, rapes your 11-year-old daughter, and beats your baby to death, that's just tough luck. What about incidents like 1984 and Godhra, where the local administration and police wilfully neglected their duty to protect the citizens of this country?

Please also read the entertaining Parable of the Sheep for an explanation so simple that even a child can understand it.

As the Indian Law stands today a citizen of this country cannot even own a stick without inviting a penalty of 7 years in prison. We live in a country where we have still not cast off the yoke of antiquated laws made by our colonial masters to keep us oppressed and at the mercy of the government, notwithstanding the lofty vision of the first page of our constitution.

Harping on the few who unfortunately misuse firearms unfairly ignores those millions of us spread all over the world who own and use them responsibly. Dreaming romantically about a world where everything has been made perfectly safe "for the children" is just that, dreaming. I've tried visualising world peace until I'm about ready to have an out of body experience, but as soon as I open my eyes, they're bombing civilians in the North East or gunning down innocents in Kashmir. Welcome to the real world.

"I ask, sir, what is the militia? It is the whole people. To disarm the people is the best and most effectual way to enslave them."-- Patrick Henry

By Abhijeet Singh

 

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