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Wednesday, 04 August 2010 17:54

By Hemchhaya De
The Telegraph
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The proposed amendment to the Arms Act and the draft Arms and Ammunition Policy may make it even more difficult for individuals to get a gun licence, reports Hemchhaya De

The 26/11 attacks were a wake up call for Rajesh Sharma. His family was supposed to stay at the Taj Mahal Hotel on that fateful day in Mumbai. But they couldn’t get a reservation and had to make alternative arrangements. “When we watched the carnage later in the media, I decided to get a licensed gun. After all, you cannot expect the police to be protecting you 24/7,” says Sharma, a young businessman.

Besides, his business is located in a remote underdeveloped industrial area in Mumbai where antisocial elements run amok after sundown. “There were several attempts at robbery on our office premises. We lodged complaints with the police. The bottom line: we needed guns for securing our offices,” says Sharma. “But I had no idea that it’s such an ordeal getting an arms licence in India. It took me almost a year to get a licence and that too after bribing my way through layers and layers of the verification process!”

Like Sharma, Cherian K. of Kerala’s Kottayam too finds the gun laws enshrined in the Arms Act of 1959 to be extremely constrictive, even though the objective of the law is to ensure that ordinary citizens can, through a legal process, acquire non-prohibited arms for self-defence or for sports. A .22 rifle shooter who represents his state shooting team, Cherian needed an all-India licence. “I have two state licences, but since I am a sportsperson I need to participate in shooting events elsewhere in the country,” he says. “I was asked by the police to provide train tickets over the past few years to prove that I travel all over India! The law seems to ensure only harassment for people.”

Both Sharma and Cherian agree that the proposed amendment to the Arms Act approved by the Cabinet for introduction in Parliament will only result in a more complicated arms licence application process. Indeed, many legal gun owners in India are voicing their concern over the proposed gun rules and regulations for individual owners on online platforms like Indians for Guns or the Gun Geek.

According to a senior Union home ministry official, who did not wish to be named, an Arms (Amendment) Bill seeking to delete a proviso to Section 13 (2A) of the original act will be introduced in Parliament soon. Section 13 (2) of the Arms Act stipulates that on receiving an application for an arms licence, the licensing authority — a district magistrate in any state or a commissioner of police for a city — is required to call for a report checking the antecedents of an applicant from the nearest police station “within the prescribed time”. The proviso concerned under Section 13 (2A) says “provided that where the officer in charge of the nearest police station does not send his report... within the prescribed time, the licensing authority may, if it deems fit, make such order, after the expiry of the prescribed time, without further waiting for that report.”

The bill proposes that it will now be incumbent on the part of the police authorities to send the verification report to the licensing authority within a period of 60 days.

Also, the licensing authority has to remind the police of their obligation if they fail to submit the report within 60 days and can issue a licence only after receiving the police verification report. This is a significant departure from the existing act, where, even if the police don’t submit a report within a reasonable time limit, licensing authorities can grant licences if they deem it appropriate.

The home ministry official says “there is a compelling need to review the provisions of the Arms Act/Arms Rules” as “the proliferation of arms, whether licensed or illegal, vitiates the law and order situation” in the country. In fact, in addition to the Arms (Amendment) Bill, which stipulated a period of 60 days for receiving a verification report from the police, the ministry has also formulated a draft Arms and Ammunition Policy within the broader framework of the Arms Act. Among other things, the policy seeks to restrict the ammunition quota for both prohibited bore (weapons which are mainly automatic or semi-automatic in nature) and non-prohibited bore weapons (non-automatic or bolt-action type) to 50 cartridges per annum. What’s more, it suggests that an all-India gun licence holder can travel with his or her weapon in upto a maximum of three adjoining states.

“This is ridiculous because even if you have an all-India validity, you cannot move with your gun from, say, Hyderabad to Delhi! This amounts to encroaching on one’s civil rights,” says Gusti Noria, vice-president of the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI), a Delhi-based organisation for gun licence-holders fighting for a more liberal gun law in India.

NAGRI members also argue that the stipulated 60-day timeframe for submitting police verification reports for arms licence applicants won’t streamline or expedite the application process in any way. “The police will take their own sweet time to submit a verification report and the licensing authority can do nothing but wait for such a report. So in effect the applicant will now have to wait indefinitely,” says Noria.

Counters Maxwell Pereira, former joint commissioner of Delhi Police, “You cannot do without a verification system. You need it for passports and other requirements. But if one can find a better verification agency in India than the police, then go ahead and use that agency!” But he also adds that the police shouldn’t harass applicants and should send in their report within the stipulated period.

Legal experts say the amendment proposed to Section 13 (2A) is commendable in that the onus now seems to be on the police to properly investigate an applicant’s credentials. “Such terms as ‘prescribed time’ or ‘reasonable time’ are ill-defined. So the amendment calls for a more practical, time-bound action from the police authorities,” says Shameek Sen, assistant professor of law at the National University of Juridical Sciences, Calcutta.

Gun owners in India contend that as a growing world power India should opt for more liberal gun laws like those that exist in the West. “If you look at National Crime Records Bureau statistics, legal firearms are used in only 1-2 per cent of the total number of murders in India. Illegal arms account for most of the violent crimes in the country. So saying that restricting gun ownership will bring down crime is not justified,” says Abhijeet Singh, a Delhi-based software engineer and blogger fighting for the cause of Indian gun owners.

Others point out that liberalising gun laws in a country with growing insurgency problems and porous borders may not be a good idea. Says Pereira, “Once you get a gun in India, you will be more hassled about its safe keeping. It can easily fall into the wrong hands.” Agrees Sen, “In fact, frequent shootings in American schools are forcing a rethink on gun laws in their country.”

But some allege that India’s gun laws discriminate against ordinary citizens. It’s easy to get a firearm licence if you are a politician or a bureaucrat. “If a person from the political class like Manu Sharma can get a legal firearm easily, why can’t it be equally easy for an ordinary citizen like Jessica Lal to legally keep a gun for self defence,” asks Singh.

It’s a question the home ministry would do well to ponder.

Read the original article on The Telegraph website