A move that the NDA government says will help reduce firearm crimes in India predictably has licensed gun owners up in arms. The Centre’s proposal to reduce the number of firearms that an individual can own from the current maximum of three to just one, through an amendment in the law, is being resisted by a motley alliance of politicians, defence and security personnel, associations of so-called martial communities, aristocrats and sportspersons.
This change has been proposed through the Arms Act (Amendment) Bill, 2019, which was scheduled to come up for discussion in Parliament this week. However, according to sources, the government has deferred the move for now following resistance from MPs. A group of 15 MPs met Union home minister Amit Shah on December 4 and argued against the one-firearm-per-individual clause in the bill.
The bill seeks to amend several provisions of the Arms Act, 1959. If the proposed cap on personal firearms gets the nod, licensees will have to deposit their extra weapons with licensed arms dealers or the police within a year of the new law taking effect. The restriction on firearms will apply even to heirloom pieces.
The Union ministry for home affairs (MHA) had invited suggestions and objections to the proposed amendments by November 18 and had initially proposed two firearms per individual. According to a Rajya Sabha parliamentary bulletin, the proposed amendments will ‘enable the law enforcement machinery to curb crimes related to or committed by illegal arms more effectively’.
India has an estimated 4 million arms licences. Though it is not clear how many licensees will be impacted, the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI) is against the proposed move. “Licensing has been extremely regulated, with semi-automatic and automatic weapons prohibited,” says Abhijeet Singh, secretary, NAGRI. “Most licensees who have three firearms have kept what they received through inheritance. These are old weapons-almost obsolete-and cannot be a threat to peace. There is not much the government should be worried about.”
If curtailing the number of licensed firearms is the government’s objective, will it have the desired result, since the de-licensed arms can still be sold to new licensees? At the same time, the country’s ordnance factories continue to manufacture weapons for civilian use. Also, private small arms manufacturers are looking to set up shop under the Make in India programme and liberalised investment policies for the defence sector. For instance, Counter Measures Technology, a Tamil Nadu-based firm, is inviting expressions of interest from potential buyers of Glock pistols that it plans to manufacture under Make in India.
Statistics suggest licensed firearms hardly contribute to gun crimes in the country. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, only 1,052, or 2.8 per cent, of the 37,116 firearms seized under the Arms Act in 2016 were licensed/ factory-made. Of the total 3,775 firearm-related murders that year, over 91 per cent (3,453) saw the use of unlicensed weapons. Of the crimes committed with licensed firearms, a large number were suicides.
Critics say that while the government is training its guns on legalised weapons, strong measures are needed against the far graver threat from illegal arms. One global estimate put the number of illicit firearms in the country in 2017 at 61.4 million. There is also the problem of the large cache of weapons that insurgent groups have managed to seize from security forces. In Chhattisgarh, say police sources, Maoists have looted approximately 1,000 automatic and semi-automatic weapons from law enforcement agencies. Of these, only about 400 have been recovered. The new bill says snatching of firearms from security forces will invite punishment from an imprisonment of 10 years to life, along with a fine.
Cutting down the number of weapons shooters can possess will restrict access to the basic firearms used for their initial training
– Raninder Singh President, National Rifle Association of India
The governments of some states bordering Pakistan are worried about the impact of the proposed curbs on firearms. Punjab chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh raised the matter with Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his visit to the state early November for the inauguration of the Kartarpur Corridor. Sources say Singh had argued that since Pakistan was trying to foment fresh trouble in Punjab, the restrictions on firearms held by individuals should be put on hold. PM Modi, the sources said, assured Singh that his concerns would be looked into.
At the height of the Khalistan insurgency in the 1980s, the Punjab government had issued a large number of licences, as one of the ways of dealing with the problem. The state presently has about 2.2 million arms licences, many of which are with ex-servicemen.
The shooting sports fraternity is worried too. “Most shooters who have excelled received their initial training using the guns at home. In a sense, it was the nursery where they first honed their skills, before scaling up their training at shooting academies or with the shooting federations,” says Raninder Singh, president, National Rifle Association of India (NRAI). “Cutting down the number of weapons one can possess will restrict access to basic firearms used for the initial training.” Singh claims shooters in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Rajasthan and Punjab are against the amendments.
India has been doing exceptionally well in international shooting events. It has bagged a record 15 quota places in various shooting disciplines in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. “Shooting has three main disciplines-rifle, shotgun and handgun. If shooters are permitted to hold only one weapon, it will restrict their choices insofar as the disciplines they would want to take up,” says Girdhar Pratap Singh, vice-president, Rajasthan Rifle Association.
NRAI has made a representation to the Union sports ministry that shooters be exempted from the single firearm restriction. The ministry has raised the matter with the MHA.
In their recommendations to the MHA, some firearm owners have also underscored the cultural value weapons hold for ‘martial communities’. “Shastra (weapons) puja on Dussehra cannot be imagined without firearms,” says a lawyer based in Mumbai.
Raninder Singh, who belongs to the erstwhile royal family of Patiala, adds: “Guru Gobind Singh ji gave arms to the Patiala royal family as an honour, after the last rites of his sons, killed in the battle with the Mughals, were performed in Patiala.”
It is not as if governments do not recognise the cultural significance that firearms hold for some communities. All residents of Kodagu have, since the British era, held the right to own firearms without a licence. Just this October, the MHA extended this unusual privilege till 2029.
The Arms Act (Amendment) Bill is not the first time the Union government is placing curbs on the number of firearms individuals can hold. In 1983, it brought the number down to three, from an earlier ‘undefined number’ that would invariably be decided by district magistrates.
The other provisions in the bill include stricter punishments-including life terms and the death sentence-for offences related to unlicensed or prohibited firearms and ammunition. Also facing the heat is celebratory firing, which in recent years has become rampant, causing numerous fatalities. Anyone found guilty of this offence will be liable to pay a fine of Rs 1 lakh as well as a jail term of two years. While these amendments have largely not been questioned by citizens, the jury is still out on the proposed one person-one firearm norm.