Millennium Post

Asset or liability?

Unfortunately, civilian possession of firearms — legal and illegal — has been claiming countless lives globally and impinging upon human rights without serving any logic

Asset or liability?

A growing awareness against gun violence is visible today in the United States as tens of thousands of people rallied across the country on June 11 — demanding stricter gun laws. The immediate trigger was the tragic massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, on May 24 by a nineteen-year-old — killing 19 children and two teachers. President Biden has openly supported the agitation and called on the Congress to "pass common sense gun safety legislation". According to the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 24,292 suicides and 19,384 homicides (a total of 45,000 deaths) have occurred due to gun-related injuries in 2020, not to mention the series of mass shootings killing scores of human beings, including children and women across various states. The deaths due to guns have gone up by 43 per cent in the US since 2010. But the US is not alone, as Brazil leads in the number of deaths by gun violence, followed by Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Guatemala; and India is not far behind either.

According to Amnesty International, around 500 people fall as victims to gun violence across the world, and 44 per cent of all homicides involve gun violence. Gun violence presents a human rights issue as it poses a serious threat to the fundamental human right — the right to life. Importantly, the majority of victims are people from coloured communities, women and marginalised sections. It is reported that in 2017, around 87,000 women were killed across the world and 58,000 of them were killed either by intimate partners or family members. Gun violence has also severe socioeconomic fallouts in terms of restricting freedom of education, employment and equality of opportunities. Because guns intimidate people, and gun violence and public mass shootings cause profound long-term psychological and emotional impacts on survivors, especially among women and children, people feel insecure to move in public places such as parks, religious shrines, malls, schools and theatres since the atmosphere gets charged with fear and uncertainty. Private possession of firearms is an indirect threat to basic human rights.

According to the Small Arms Survey Organisation, about 390 million guns were in circulation in 2018. There are eight million new small arms, and up to 15 billion rounds of ammunition are produced every year and the small arms trade is worth USD 8.5 billion per year. Some countries like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea, Singapore etc. have initiated gun reforms — restricting access to firearms which helped in reduction of gun violence but couldn't eradicate it. Arms Trade Treaty (2014) is an international law that binds all signatories to follow strict rules on international arms supply in order to save human lives and rights. Member nations have a legal obligation to protect people from firearm violence. Nevertheless, guns continue to wreak havoc, as the number of deaths across the world has been on the rise, unabated.

While access to firearms is the easiest in the US where a 15-year-old child can buy a gun (but not an alcoholic beverage), in India, it is extremely difficult. Nevertheless, the magnitude of gun violence and deaths in India is not very different from that in the US, except the mass shootings. Purchase of guns (handguns, rifles and semi-automatic and fully-automatic guns) is controlled by Arms Act 1959 and the Arms Rules 1962. It takes almost a year to buy one. Most importantly, unlike in the US or other countries, in India, firearms are manufactured and supplied only by the Central Government — the Central Ordnance Factory under the Ministry of Defence to be precise. A recent estimate by the Small Arms Survey states that India ranks 110 globally in ownership of civilian firearms with only 4.2 guns per 100 citizens while the US ranks 1st with 88.8 guns per 100 citizens. At the same time, a report by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation says that India ranks 3rd after Brazil and the US in terms of firearm deaths in the world. In 2016, India recorded 26,500 gun-related deaths. This reveals that strict gun laws are no deterrent against gun violence. On the contrary, it is also observed that it leads to illegal manufacturing and sale of firearms. There are 40 million firearms owned by civilians but only 6.3 million (around 15 per cent) are said to be licensed. Unlicensed guns of various kinds possessed by citizens account for between 86-92 per cent (mostly in UP, Bihar and Jharkhand). According to the National Crime Records Bureau, more than 90 per cent of deaths have occurred by illegally held firearms. Shooting innocent people at toll gates, bars and hotels (Jessica's killing), accidental deaths while loading cartridges, hired killings (Supari), extortion, kidnapping, rape and other heinous crimes frequently in news, are mainly carried out with the help of guns, not to mention the ugly role of firearms during polls.

Guns are lethal weapons invented only to take life and, as such, possession of guns by citizens is a potential threat for peace and social harmony. Notwithstanding glorified justifications like the right of private defence or protection from wild animals, a democratic society doesn't need its citizens to own firearms, especially when huge government budget is spent on police and paramilitary forces for protection of citizens and maintenance of law and order. On the contrary, studies show that possession of firearms by civilians, legal or illegal, has only been instrumental in exacerbating deaths by suicides, vengeful killings, and in organised crimes by 'Bahubalis' and underworld 'Dons'. Most importantly, firearms in the hands of people from dominant classes in rural India only help perpetrate atrocities against Dalits and weaker sections. It may sound academic to say that gun laws are classist in spirit because they create a class divide, for only a rich man can afford a gun and use it for his 'self-defence' while a poor man will have to rely on the state machinery to protect him and his family. My experience as District Magistrate vouches for my conviction, since almost all applications for gun licences I received were from people from dominant classes in society. Right to life is a basic human right and access to guns for a certain class of citizens is discriminatory. That said, an argument in favour of gun supply to underprivileged classes on subsidised prices can be further absurd. The apposite question is: do citizens need guns?

Guns and ammunition should be only in the absolute custody of law-enforcing machineries and the armed forces, which are responsible for the protection of people and the nation. The personnel are not only trained for lawful use of guns but also are accountable for any lapses in the process. It is high time we realise that the best way to control gun violence and crime is to impose a blanket ban on civilian access to firearms. It could be difficult in western nations like the US where pro-gun lobbies spend more than anti-gun lobbies since arms' manufacturing is a flourishing industry, with Military Industrial Complex having a direct access to power corridors; but in countries like India where manufacturing and sale of firearms is a state monopoly regulated by law, it's no big deal. Strong political will and social awareness are all that are required to end the menace of gun violence. A zero-tolerance approach for private possession of guns should become a logical and natural social value in the land of Buddha and Gandhi. It's an important issue that the government should mull over.

The writer is a former Addl. Chief Secretary of Chhattisgarh. Views expressed are personal

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