Case for gun control

Published : Jan 12, 2007 00:00 IST

In the unprecedented coverage of two recent judgments, the media missed an opportunity to draw attention to the perils of a growing gun culture.

I can't help feeling that if someone broke into my house and I went for my gun there's a good chance someone would end up dead and it would not necessarily be the burglar. I think I would rather just let them take my stuff, life's are more important than belongings.

Dominic Smith, Reading, England

NOTHING can portray more effectively the dilemma that faces the law-abiding citizen who is sceptical of the state's ability to protect him from crime and would rather arm himself to confront the intruder in his home. Smith's response was to a BBC report a few years ago on the grave gun crime scene on both sides of the Atlantic. Many who keep a gun at home for self-defence do not exactly enjoy having one at arm's reach. They dread the prospect of someone in the family getting killed in an accident or while challenging an intruder. If they still keep a gun, it is an index of their anxiety and state of mental confusion.

The BBC story generated a lot of interest among the public when it was first broadcast. It is relevant even now. This is because it raises issues that can be ignored only at our peril, that too at a time when weapons are becoming frighteningly sophisticated.

I am not particularly impressed with the extent of our own media's concern over the growing nexus between gun and crime. The recent unprecedented coverage of two court judgments unfortunately failed to highlight an important feature of the criminal justice scene. In the Jessica Lall case, accused Manu Sharma apparently used his licensed .22 bore pistol to commit the abominable act. Not surprisingly, he did not adduce evidence to prove that the shots could not have been fired from his weapon, which, intriguingly, was not traceable for production at the trial. With the advances made in forensic ballistics, it would have taken mere minutes to establish the truth or otherwise of the pistol's having been used for the crime.

In the Mumbai blasts case, Sanjay Dutt acquired a 9-mm pistol and ammunition without a valid licence, and once possession of such a weapon was proved in court, he was rightly held guilty under the relevant provisions of the Arms Act. The court no doubt believed the defence claim that he was not a terrorist and had acquired the gun only for his own protection. If a movie idol, coming from an extremely influential family and operating among a faction-ridden film milieu that has got inextricably mixed up with the city's underworld, did not rate his chances of obtaining a licence high, what to speak of lesser mortals like us?

In contrast, the other sordid episode of Delhi reveals that if you have the right connections, it is not difficult to get an arms licence. How did Manu Sharma manage a licence, and for what purpose? The gory incident showed at least his mental instability, if not absolute insanity. When this was the case, what kind of field enquiries were conducted before he was cleared? Did his high-level contacts help? As tax-paying citizens, we are entitled to ask these questions and obtain credible answers. Here is an instance in which the Right to Information Act should be invoked in public interest.

The two incidents prove beyond doubt that it is possible for influential persons to get hold of firearms, either legally or from criminal gangs, under the pretext of needing them for personal protection. While there is no report that the movie icon did anything beyond acquiring the pistol from those in the underworld who conspired to bring about the Mumbai blasts of 1993, Manu used his weapon on a hapless Delhi model, who tended the bar at a restaurant, just because she refused to serve him drinks.

I believe that the media missed an opportunity here to draw public attention to the perils of a growing gun culture. I have always feared walking the streets of New York or Philadelphia because the chances of confronting a gun-toting idler in the United States are relatively high compared with many other countries. We may not take long to reach such a situation, if National Crime Records Bureau statistics are any indication.

On an average, 40,000 persons are victims of homicide annually in India. In 2005, 34,419 people were murdered. (Given the supreme ingenuity of our policemen to suppress even the most heinous of offences, only the Almighty will know how many more were murdered and whose kin did not get the benefit of a police investigation.) Of these, 5,643 (16 per cent) were killed with the help of firearms. A further break-up is startling. As many as 5,087 (90 per cent) fell to firing from unlicensed weapons. Only 556 died from injuries caused by licensed guns.

Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir accounted for 68.5 per cent of all victims dying of gun-shot wounds. Now we know which regions to target for stricter enforcement of the gun law. We also know how, at least in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, crime thrives under political patronage and how in these States illegal arms factories are cottage industries that flourish uncontrolled. If this analysis does not spur both policy-makers and the community into action, what else will?

In the realm of gun control, it is relevant to study the scene in the U.S., a country bedevilled by the constitutional right "to bear arms". My own personal knowledge, acquired during my student days at Temple University, Philadelphia (from my Cooney apartments on the campus I could hear gun shots frequently enough to alarm even a hardened cop like me), and my subsequent interactions with policemen and academics at Rutgers and Harvard have convinced me that the country has suffered badly from the polemics over the desirability of allowing people to buy guns with ease.

The country is still sharply divided and this accounts for the gruesome figure of 30,000 Americans losing their lives to gunfire in 2001. Of these deaths, 40 per cent were from homicides. Closer to the present times, nearly 70 per cent of the 14,860 homicides reported to the authorities in 2005 involved firearms. The handgun was the predominant weapon. According to one estimate, there are nearly 300 million guns in the country; 35 per cent of households own a total of more than 200 million guns, of which 65 per cent are handguns.

Criminology and Public Policy

The article `Better gun enforcement, less crime' by Jens Ludwig of Georgetown University talks of the high social costs (nearly $100 billion) of gun violence and the need to reverse a dangerous trend. Ludwig cites varied research, some of which dispels the theory that more guns mean less crime because of the protection they offer to individuals. On the contrary, everything points to the conclusion that more handguns in private hands lead to more homicides.

The Brady Act of 1994 introduced mandatory background checks of those wanting to buy weapons. This check, to be done by licensed dealers, was meant to keep out unstable and criminal elements from owning firearms. Research does not, however, indicate that such checks have reduced gun violence. Ludwig feels that rather than emphasising a routine exercise imposed by Brady, the quality of checks needs to be improved.

Significant to many in India is Ludwig's optimism that gun violence can be tackled effectively by strengthening programmes such as Project Safe Neighbourhoods (PSN), which has been in vogue in the U.S. since 2001. This is a Federal government initiative at the instance of President George W. Bush, which seeks to build on two experiments - Richmond's Project Exile and Boston's Operation Ceasefire.

Receiving a $1.1-billion assistance during 2001-2004, the PSN steps up prosecution of offenders as well as prevention, in the form of reducing teenagers' demand for guns, and enhancement of the safety of guns through the distribution of gun locks. (Many avoid buying locks because of the cost. Also, some would prefer guns remaining open for quick use.)

All that Washington has done till now has had only limited impact. Ludwig suggests that targeted patrol, that is, applying greater police resources to areas known to be prone to gun violence, could improve the PSN's efficacy. He concedes that one danger of targeting communities known for a high abuse of firearms is a worsening of police relations with those communities. This is possibly a small price to pay for greater community safety through reduced homicide rates.

It will be unwise to ignore what is happening in the U.S. and what its policy-makers are doing to contain the menace of widespread gun ownership. I concede that there is yet no great fancy in our country for possessing guns. But with greater and greater fascination for all that the average American does, something that is portrayed so glamorously in Hollywood movies and on TV channels, the situation could alter dramatically. There is also nothing in the political firmament that would suggest our politicians are shunning violence to put down their rivals. New Delhi needs to adopt a programme similar to the PSN if we have to claim and substantiate that guns are not part of Indian culture. Here, the accent should be to deglamourise the use of guns through imaginative propaganda in schools and colleges. If this is not taken up on a war-footing, we may see the rise of a new generation of citizens that believes the gun is the most reliable tool to settle differences. This is especially because sections of our police forces seem to think that there are things in their charter that are more important than containing crime.

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