Increasingly strict gun laws have affected weapons dealers such as Tejinder Singh Ghei.
Increasingly strict gun laws have affected weapons dealers such as Tejinder Singh Ghei.

Gun ownership laws trigger Indian debate

NEW DELHI // It's 1.30 on a Friday afternoon and Tejinder Singh Ghei, the owner of a tidy, one-room gun shop near Kashmiri Gate in Old Delhi, has not had a customer all week. An old plastic telephone on Mr Ghei's counter rings and, after a short conversation, Mr Ghei hangs up with a sigh. "That was a dealer in Amritsar," Mr Ghei said. "He says there is no business there either. It's dead everywhere."

Business has been bad for years thanks to ever tighter gun laws, Mr Ghei said, but since March, when the government introduced a new set of amendments, it has been even worse. Along with highly restrictive curbs on the sale of ammunition and the creation of a national database of firearm owners, the new regulations also require gun-licence applicants to prove a "grave and imminent threat" to their lives in order to be approved.

"Who can prove this? It's ridiculous," Mr Ghei said. "India is a dangerous place. We are all at risk, but we don't get threats." He was not the only one angered by the recent changes. India's gun owners are also outraged, and for the first time they are fighting back in a style similar to the US's National Rifle Association. In January, a small group of enthusiasts met in Delhi to found The National Association of Gun Rights India (Nagri) to lobby lawmakers and to fund legal cases that make it easier to own and carry arms in India.

This month the organisation began a membership drive - and in doing so, they have provoked a debate about the role of fire arms in the land of Mahatma Gandhi. "The bottom line is it's about freedom," said Abhijeet Singh, 37, an entrepreneur and one of Nagri's founders. "The first line of defence has to be the citizen. It always has been like that, it will always continue to be like that." Gun rights are an emotive issue in India because they are closely bound up with the country's struggle for freedom.

After the Mutiny of 1857 - known here as India's first war of independence - the British banned all non-Europeans from owning weapons to prevent another uprising. Even Gandhi, a famous proponent of non-violence, wrote in his autobiography: "Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look back upon the Act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest." Thus in 1959, when the new Indian government drafted a law to replace the British one, it granted every citizen the right to bear arms, regardless of race or social standing.

Businesses such as Mr Ghei's - which at the time was run by his father - boomed as people bought guns for hunting, protection and as status symbols. But in the 1980s, with separatist insurgencies raging in Kashmir and Punjab and a Maoist rebellion in the centre of the country, the government began to make it harder to get gun licences and permits to travel with a firearm. Now, gun enthusiasts say, the only way to purchase a legal firearm is to ask a local politician to pull some strings or to pay a hefty bribe.

"I am a free citizen with no criminal record," said Sandeep Mukherjee, 44, who has been waiting more than two years for a permit to carry his handgun with him when he travels. "I am not going to pay a bribe. It's a right given to me under Indian law, why can't I exercise that right?" Like many would-be gun owners, Mr Mukherjee said his desire to own a firearm stems from a need to protect himself and his family. India has one of the lowest ratios of police to population in the world - 130 per 100,000, compared to an international average of 270.

In states such as Uttar Pradesh, where Mr Mukerjee lives, kidnappings, armed robberies and highway hold-ups are still commonplace. He and other Nagri members argue that a combination of a slothful judicial system and a corrupt police force contribute to the rising crime rates, and more open gun laws can act as a deterrent. "An armed society is a polite society," said Rahoul Rai, the president of Nagri.

But anti-gun campaigners say arming citizens is not the way forward. The Control Arms Foundation of India (Cafi), which was set in up 2004 in response to rising gun crime in the north-east, estimates there are already some 46 million firearms in India, making it the country with the second largest number of guns in civilian hands after the US. "If I say I am going to protect myself then I exempt the state from doing its job. What India are we living in? This is not some failed state," said Arundhati Ghose, a former India ambassador to the UN who campaigns for Cafi.

Cafi estimates that some 58,000 people have died as result of armed violence in India in the past 15 years, while tens of thousands more have been wounded or maimed. Nagri counters that the majority of these were caused by the 40 million illegal arms in circulation, not the 5 million legal ones held by people it hopes to represent. "No criminal is standing in line applying for a firearms licence," said the Nagri founder Mr Singh. "Why would he? He can get more firepower on the black market and he is less traceable. It is only the law-abiding citizen who is affected by these laws."


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