Soaring gun-violence rates – is Stricter Regulation the Answer?

(This was written for the July Edition of The Political Edge, and has been reproduced with their permission)

“The rifle itself has no moral stature, since it has no will of its own. Naturally, it may be used by evil men for evil purposes, but there are more good men than evil, and while the latter cannot be persuaded to the path of righteousness by propaganda, they can certainly be corrected by good men with rifles.” 

– Argues Jeff Cooper, the creator of the “modern technique” of handgun shooting for self defense in his book “The Art of Rifle”. While the statement might be true in it’s spirit, the reality draws a different picture. Goodness remains a term that lacks clarity in definition,  and a lion-share of killings are perpetrated by individuals who identify themselves to be good. Let it be due to religious terrorism or a war between nations, lives were taken by individuals who believed what they did was right, and for the good.

File:Women leaving flowers for mosque shooting victims.jpg
Women leaving flowers for mosque shooting victims.
Luis Alejandro Apiolaza, WikiMedia Commons.

No different was the case with the perpetrators of the Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand that took place this March and shook the conscience of the world. The persons who pulled the triggers were trying to correct a population which they thought cannot be persuaded to the path of their idea of righteousness, through propaganda or other means.

What is more poignant is the reality that thousands of individuals lose their lives in accidental shootings, where the concepts of good and evil are not even applicable. The situation calls for an introspection from the part of policymakers and governments on regulation of firearms.

Mass Shootings and the Debate in the US. 

Firearm policy has been a burning issue in the United States, as the rate of gun violence is on a rise. The Guardian reported in December 2018 quoting figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that steady rise in suicides involving firearms has pushed the rate of gun deaths in the US to its highest rate in more than 20 years with almost 40,000 people killed in shootings in 2017. In February 2018, the USA witnessed the deadliest of school mass shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida where 17 persons, including students and staff members were killed. It was less than half of a year ago that a man opened fire at a concert in Las Vegas killing 58 persons and injuring 851, making it the deadliest of all mass shootings in the US history. With the presidential elections around the corner, the debate is on; and according to a study by the Pew Foundation, democrats and republicans agree on many contentions while disagreeing on a few. 

The New Zealand incident and the ban 

Following the incident at the Christchurch mosque, the gun laws of the country came into scrutiny and The Arms (Prohibited Firearms, Magazines, and Parts) Amendment Act was passed and it  prohibited semi-automatic firearms, magazines, and parts that can be used to assemble prohibited firearms. This landmark step needs to be understood on the premise that the New Zealand is almost alone with the United States in not registering 96 percent of its firearms, as pointed out by Philip Alpers of GunPolicy.org.

Firearm Regulation Across the World 

A. The USA 

Gun ownership in the United States has its basis rooted in the Second Amendment of the Constitution: “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”. However, the Gun Control Act of 1968 prohibits persons under eighteen years of age, convicted criminals, the mentally disabled, dishonorably discharged military personnel, and others from purchasing firearms.

B. France 

The regulation of guns in France is categorised as restrictive. Guiding gun control legislation in the country includes the Internal Security Code and various specific directives in line with the European Firearms Directive. There is no right to bear arms for the French, and to own a gun, one needs a hunting or sporting license which needs to be repeatedly renewed and requires a psychological evaluation.

C. Germany 

In Germany gun ownership is widespread. Gun usage is regulated by the German Weapons Act which adhers to the European Firearms Directive, first enacted in 1972, and superseded by the law of 2003, in force as of 2016. This federal statute regulates the handling of firearms, ammunition as well as acquisition, storage, commerce, and maintenance of weapons.

D. Dubai

Buying or possessing firearms without a license or permit is prohibited by UAE law. The law forbids a gun owner from producing a firearm in a public place, even if it is licensed. Gun licenses are issued only to Emirati nationals.

E. Pakistan

Pakistan’s gun regulatory regime includes the Pakistan Arms Ordinance of 1965,51 amended in 1991 and 2001, the Arms Rules of 1924, the Illicit Arms Act of 1991, the Penal Code of 1860 and the Arms Policy of 2012.The regulation is categorised as permissive and guns do have a role in Pakistan’s culture.  Pakistan is also known for its indigenous gunsmith tradition. Owning or possessing a firearm requires licensing in most of Pakistan’s provinces. But the studies and news reports says most gun licenses are fake. Acquisition of the license involves the payment of fees, a processing time ranging from a few days to months, and registration of the firearm with local authorities.

F. India 

Gun usage in India is regulated by the Arms Act of 1959 and the Arms Rules of 2016. Only licensed gun owners can lawfully acquire, possess or transfer a firearm or ammunition. Licensed firearm owners in India are permitted to possess up to three firearms and only 100 rounds per firearm .One can purchase only 200 rounds per firearm per annum total. 

Indian Experience with Firearms

As per the data from the Home Ministry, India has 3,369,444 licensed gun owners while the Graduate Institute of International  Development Studies, Geneva approximated the total number of guns (both licit and illicit) held by civilians in India to 71,101,000 in 2017. However, the Sydney University database on guns puts the rate of private gun ownership per 100 Indians at 3.4. That’s a paltry number compared with 101 guns per 100 Americans. The legal framework, one among the strictest in the world has made acquisition and maintenance of a firearm legally a very difficult task. But does this help curb violence? 

The answer is an emphatic yes. According to the data from the National Crimes Records Bureau, guns account for only 10 in 100 homicides. However, more than 90% of deaths by firearms have been caused using an unlawfully-held weapon – a trend noticed year after year.

Crimes like mass shootings are rare in India and is a major concern only in conflict-affected regions. While strict gun laws do succeed in restricting access to guns to an extent, illegal gun  ownership is a matter of concern. 

Illegal ammunition has been instrumental in areas affected with left-wing extremism and where secession calls are in the air. The armed wing of the Naxalite–Maoists (often termed the left-wing extremists) called the People’s Liberation Guerrilla Army (PLGA) is estimated to have between 6,500 and 9,500 cadres, mostly armed with small arms. They also have access to bombs and other firearms. Most recently on this Labour Day, 16 army soldiers, including a driver were killed in an IED blast carried out by Naxalites in Gadchiroli, Maharashtra. 3 Maoists and 25 CRPF Jawans lost their lives in the 2017 Sukma attack. 

Arms conflict is a usual affair in the conflict-hit Jammu Kashmir and the insurgents and Indian Security Forces often engage in firefights. Terrorism, supported by illegal ammunition poses serious threat to the lives of Indians and the counter-measure should be two-pronged, one that of a crackdown on illegal firearms along with policy level interventions that tries to resolve the concerns of the insurgents where found genuine. 

The way forward 

Ample evidence can be found to prove that easy access to firearms result in more causalities. The Australian experience would testify for this statement. In 1996, following a mass shooting the country went for a total overhaul of the legal framework in existence hitherto and made the regulation stricter, which restricted access to weaponry. All semi-automatic and self-loading weapons were banned, and added restrictions were brought in on certain other types of handgun. A comprehensive registration and licensing system was introduced and the requirements for owning a gun got tougher. A mandatory buyback scheme resulted in at least 600,000 guns being handed over to the authorities. In the two decades before the law changed, there were 13 mass shootings. But in more than 20 years since the law changed, there have only been two mass shootings where a maximum of four people were killed.

While the debate over the best gun control policy  is progressing, the author’s contribution would be a suggestion that it should be one that understands the specific situation in the country. In a country like India where firearms are not part of the culture, a strict law were access is limited to those who are in special need of a gun would be recommended. On the other hand, as far as a country like the United States where firearms are an intrinsic part of the lives of citizens is concerned, increased barriers to access would encourage illegal arms trade and will result in more chaos than intended. 

In general, firearms should be discouraged and the  governments should invest in propaganda to discourage the gun-culture. Reality is different from what Jeff Cooper opined, and the rifle itself should have a moral stature because it does have a will of its own – it is annihilation; regardless of the person who is in its point blank. 

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