An Indian woman handles an Indian-made revolver at a newly opened gun shop in Lucknow 11 October 2002. Though owning firearms in India is illegal without a license, guns may be bought on the black market, or often, are made illegally in small country factories and sold without licenses. Image Credit: AFP

At about noon on November 17, Ponty Chadha, 55, a shady liquor baron, was gunned down outside his family farmhouse near New Delhi — by his brother, Hardeep Chadha, who was in turn was killed by the billionaire’s guards. The feud centred on a property dispute. Things came to a head after Ponty asked his guards to deface the farmhouse board carrying Hardeep’s name. When the younger brother got wind of this, he rushed to the spot and opened fire. Fifteen slugs were fished out of Ponty’s body, while Hardeep suffered four bullet wounds.

More than 100 rounds were fired during the gun battle, all from legally obtained guns, with Hardeep using his licensed 9-mm pistol. Many questions were left unanswered: how, for instance, did Ponty, who was fully disabled in one hand, and had only two fingers in the other, get a gun licence?

This dramatic shoot-out also focused attention on an issue that is seldom discussed in India — gun ownership and gun crimes. Many Indians rightly assume that getting a gun licence is very difficult, as the right to own a gun is not guaranteed by law. What most don’t realise, though, is that acquiring a firearm in the country is not that tough. According to the authoritative website GunPolicy.org, there are an estimated 40 million firearms in the hands of Indian civilians; only about 6.3 million of these are registered. That makes India the second-most armed society in the world after, of course, the United States, where the heartbreaking murder of little children at a school in Connecticut last week has reignited the gun debate.

According to statistics for 2010 released by the National Crime Records Bureau of India, a government agency, 5,575 people were murdered using firearms in the country. Out of these, 4,988 were killed using illegal/unlicensed guns. Only 587 of these deaths were traced to licensed weapons; this includes accidental deaths, crimes of passion, and murders that were committed using stolen (but licensed) guns. The proportion of murder victims killed using firearms has also been steadily declining — it was 16.5 per cent in 2006, 14.5 per cent in 2007, 12.2 per cent in 2008, 9.3 per cent in 2009 and 9 per cent in 2010.

Compared to many other developing countries, especially in southern Africa and Latin America, gun crime in India is relatively low. But the rising economic prosperity has also ushered in increased ownership of legally acquired guns. In some major cities, notably Delhi, owning a firearm is seen by some men as a status symbol. K.C. Varshney, who works at a forensics laboratory in Delhi, told BBC that earlier, his lab received two to three firearms a day from the police. Now, the number is four to five. Besides, the pistols now being sent to them are much more sophisticated.

Rakshit Sharma is a pilot by profession. He is also the secretary-general of the National Association for Gun Rights, India (NAGRI), which was formed by “public spirited” people who wanted to counter the “policy of creeping disarmament of law abiding citizens”. A non-profit organisation, it has 7,000 members. Sharma, an articulate and robust proponent of gun rights, feels that just because a person owns a legal firearm doesn’t mean he is trigger-happy. “We advocate safe gun handling. The law basically states that any Indian of sound mind, good character, with no criminal record and a safe place to keep the weapon can get a licence. But when you try to apply for one, it is almost impossible to get it. This happens in 99 per cent of the cases. Why is the government trying to take the gun out of the hands of the legal gun owner? Criminals don’t apply for gun licences; they go to the grey market. There is also a lot of anti-gun propaganda. People like Ponty Chadha, who have criminal inclinations, will always get gun licences. But even in the Ponty Chadha murder, since the crime was committed with legally acquired weapons, placing responsibility was relatively easy. Gun laws in India are very strict, but when a common citizen applies for a licence, he is almost treated like a criminal,” Sharma said in an interview with Weekend Review.

On its website, NAGRI claims: “The Right to Keep & Bear Arms was promised to all Indian citizens as a Fundamental Right throughout the freedom struggle and post independence it was finally enshrined as a Legal Right as per the Arms Act 1959. However, beginning in the early 1980s and continuing to date, several amendments have been made to the original Arms Act 1959 & Arms Rules 1962, which have in effect left the common citizen defenceless and at the mercy of all manner of criminals & anti-national elements.”

But Binalakshmi Nepram, co-founder and secretary-general of the New Delhi-based Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI), told Weekend Review that there are loopholes in the law. “Yes, gun laws are strict in India. But there are some loopholes. For instance, there are no mental-health checks on people who apply for licences. Even for those who have criminal backgrounds, the checks are made only after they have been charged which, in India, can take time. Besides, anyone above the age of 18 can apply and there are no limits on the number of licences per family. This can be misused to create private armies to take control of land, settle family disputes, etc.”

A native of the insurgency-rattled Manipur state, in India’s northeast, Nepram has seen first-hand the havoc wrought by guns. She is also the founder of Manipur Women Gun Survivors’ Network and author of two books, “South Asia’s Fractured Frontier: Armed Conflict, Narcotics and Small Arms Proliferation in India’s Northeast” and “Meckley”, a historical fiction based on the conflict in Manipur.

Unlike NAGRI, Nepram believes that the problem is both with legal and illegal guns. “Ninety per cent of the arsenal is owned/manufactured by governments. Many non-state armed groups source their guns from the government arsenal, by looting them,” she said. “A legal gun becomes illegal once it is stolen. In Manipur alone [we found] 58 types of guns from 13 countries. The government claims that it has captured 40,000 AK-47s in Jammu and Kashmir and 2,000 AK-47s in Manipur. Once captured, these weapons become court [state] property. But later, they are auctioned off to politicians and senior officials. In India, 37 per cent of the lawmakers have criminal backgrounds. [It is also because of the auctions] that there is no reliable data on the number of illegal weapons. Hence, it is best to destroy illegal weapons once they have been seized. At least, don’t give them to politicians or private security companies.”

In India, a person may obtain a maximum of three firearms on the basis of his or her licence. However, the punishment for being caught with an illegal firearm is lenient. And when a legal gun owner dies, his or her weapon must be returned to the nearest police station by the next of kin. But often the family and even the police are lax about this.

In July this year, the Indian Cabinet said that a “verification report” from the police must be sought before any gun licence is issued. CAFI had also pushed for this move. According to the Cabinet decision, people are required to “prove” a threat to their lives. “I have issues with that,” Sharma said. “If you are a farmer living on an isolated farm or a woman in Delhi who is at risk … do you have to prove a specific threat? This is absurd. So you have to be raped, looted or killed to be given a licence? The politicians, however, get all the security they need. We are not calling for a Wild West scenario. We have a lot of support. More than 118 lawmakers have supported our position.”

The government justifies the tightening of the requirements for gun licences by citing increased instances of crime in the country. NAGRI, however, argues that it is precisely this increase in crime that warrants wider gun ownership. “I think if legal gun ownership is encouraged, crime will come down,” Sharma said. “No criminals will go into places where they know there are gun owners. They will face armed resistance, which is a great deterrence. Pepper spray is not going to work if the wind is in the wrong direction.”

But it stands to reason that the more the number of arms in the hands of the people, the more the danger. Not so, said Sharma. “The data doesn’t bear this up. You can’t use statistics to your convenience. I don’t think the figure of 40 million guns is credible. Regardless of this, the legal gun owner is a very responsible person. The government acts whenever a gun crime happens just because it wants to be seen to be doing something. We are not saying ‘Make it like the US’, where you can buy guns in Wal-Mart. There is a law in place. We are OK with the law as it exists. This is a democracy. It is your right to choose not to own a gun. But I choose to own a gun, and the law allows it.”

Surprisingly, even an organisation such as CAFI does not call for a blanket ban on guns in the hands of civilians. “We don’t support a blanket ban. If you have a weapon, it should be kept under lock and key. Children are shooting classmates with weapons taken from their parents. Chances of you or your loved ones getting shot are 12 times more when you have guns. Look, ideally we would like to live in a society where civilians should not have weapons. But in India, the state doesn’t do its job [of protecting civilians] well. So, in some cases you may feel there is a threat to your life. But in general, common citizens don’t really need guns in India. Most people with legal or illegal guns are from political families or those who have ill-gotten wealth.”

There is also the problem of training. Many in India have the licence without knowing how to use a gun safely. CAFI is working with Delhi Police in this regard.

It took Sharma three years to get a licence. He now owns a .32 calibre revolver. He doesn’t believe most Indians would back stricter gun control. “I don’t think so. This is a perception. When you talk to people and give them the scenarios, they say it makes sense. The process of getting it is so tedious; many are deterred by the lengthy process. Even if you get the licence, the cheapest gun costs Rs75,000 [Dh5,030], which would not even sell for $75 [Dh275] in the international market. Any decent imported gun costs not less than Rs600,000. This same weapon would cost $200 in the international market. Most gun owners can get only 25 cartridges a year. And at one time, you can only buy ten. This applies to competitive shooters too! Ammo is costly; a single imported round costs Rs500. So if you let off 10 rounds, it will cost you Rs5,000.”