By Shantanu Nandan Sharma
The Economic Times Bureau
Sunday, July 25, 2010
When Mahendra Singh Dhoni applied to buy a 9 mm pistol, it triggered a riot of redtapism in his home state of Jharkhand. He was made to run from pillar to post for several months, before his application was sent to Delhi’s North Block, the union home ministry headquarters, for final approval. The captain of the national cricket team finally received the licence for the bore, but not before two years of paperwork and a controversy over the authorities demanding, among other things, his character certificate!
While ordinary citizens, who also plan to own firearms, were fretting at the government’s trigger-happy rules that required even a national icon to defend his reputation, the home ministry moved in to amend the Arms Act, 1959 making the process (of acquiring firearms) even more stringent. The proposed changes, which were approved by the Cabinet last week, will minimise chances of issuing arms licences to persons of doubtful antecedents and are supposed to stall proliferation of small arms in a conflict-ridden nation.
The ministry has argued that proliferation of arms, whether licensed or illegal, vitiates law and order, and hence needs to be curbed. India with 46 million firearms has the world’s second-largest civilian gun arsenal after the United States, according to the 2007 Small Arms Survey. Whereas US citizens own 270 million of the world’s 875 million known firearms, China with 40 million privately held firearms ranks third. But with bloody incidents involving gun-totting individuals on the rise in the US, as also in Indian cities and villages, concerns over the growing number of licenses isn’t unfounded.
A serving police officer who did not want to be named says that celebrities and industrialists often apply for small arms for protection, but there has been a craze for licensed guns in some geographical areas in particular. “You would find more such applications in central Bihar or in and around Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh. At times, people try to bribe officers to get arms licences too,” he says. Among people who own guns in India are the rich who need to defend themselves, and politicians and criminals, who not only use the bore to defend, but also as a symbol of power and prestige.
There is a provision, Section 13 (2A), of the Act, which empowers the licensing authority to grant an arms licence where the police verification report has not been received within the prescribed time. Now, the new draft, which will be moved to Parliament for approval seeks to delete the provision thereby making it mandatory for the licensing authority to wait for the police verification report.
Though the government’s move to amend the Arms Act is unlikely to face any opposition in Parliament, a lobby group called National Association for Gun Rights for India (Nagri) is already terming the proposed amendment as “draconian”. It argues that if someone can own and carry firearms for self-defence in the US, why is he not allowed to do so in India. It argues that terrorists or the mafia are not going to be deterred by gun-control laws, and will be willing to procure arms of their choice irrespective of any laws.
Rahoul Rai, the president of Nagri says the amendment of the Arms Act is an injustice to ordinary citizens. “If an ordinary citizen applies for a gun’s licence, he is unlikely to get it unless he has right connections. And it may take two to three years. So, many people end up buying illegal arms,” he says.
What’s more, it is cheaper to buy the same gun in the grey market. The cost of a .32 Cal Revolver, for instance, is over Rs 78,000, whereas a .32 Cal Semi-Auto Pistol costs Rs 85,358, according to the ratelist of Indian Ordnance Factories, the state-owned firearms manufacturing units. Some of the cheaper options include 0.22 LR Revolver (about Rs 46,000), .22 LR Sporting Rifle (about Rs 42,000) and .315 Sporting Rifle (over Rs 55,000), but many of those are available cheaper in grey market because of stringent rules in resale. According to available statistics, only 2% of the total murders in the country is committed by legally held arms.
Also, stringent rules for licenced small arms may not work so long as there is a proliferation of illegal arms in the country mainly due to rising conflicts. Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary general of New Delhi-based Control Arms Foundation of India, argues that India alone cannot fight the problem of arms proliferation as arms know no borders. “It is important to develop a regional treaty with South Asian countries to curb cross border transfers of Arms. And at the UN level, it is critical for India to support efforts for a global Arms Trade Treaty to curb irresponsible trade transfers,” she says. The treaty is expected to be finalised by 2012.
For the home ministry, though, a bigger challenge is the lack of a national database that tracks legally held firearms. Ms Nepram mentions how the proposed amendment of the Arms Act wants to create a database. “The draft policy proposes the licencing authority to maintain records and share those with the central government,” she says. And that will ensure a real analysis of guns, law and rights.
Read the original article on The Economic Times website