Time to relax India’s gun control laws, to fight militants?

December 11, 2008

Should India ease up on its tight gun control laws to arm citizens so that they can put up a fight next time they are attacked in their hotels, train stations and even a hospital as it happened in Mumbai last month?

Some people are arguing that if the people, or at least some of them such as hotel security staff and police at a railway terminal, had been properly armed there would have been some form of resistance to the Mumbai attackers instead of the spectacle of them moving around a city of 18 million as if they owned it.

You wouldn’t have had a situation where the gunmen killed at will and with such deliberation, shooting up a popular cafe, and then joining their comrades at the Taj hotel.

 Or the other pair that marched up and down the train station emptying their machine guns into commuters, hopping over to a hospital to kill some more in the vicinity. And all this while the police, armed with only batons, watched cowering in the shadows.

There was plenty of heroism, to be sure. Like the policeman who local media said took bullets, so that one of the gunmen could be captured alive. He is really now the key to the Indian position that this was an attack launched and controlled from Pakistan. Or the hotel staff  who stepped in front to take bullets instead of the guests.

[Taj Hotel,Mumbai,Reuters pic by Arko Datta]

But if they could take bullets, why couldn’t they return them? None of the security staff at the Trident-Oberoi had weapons thanks to India’s tight gun laws that make it virtually impossible to get permits, said chairman P.R. S. Oberoi.

Or take the Jewish outreach centre where there were some reports early on that bystanders tried to pelt the militants with stones only to retreat when they opened automatic fire on them.

The gun control laws date back to British colonial times when the authorities severely restricted gun ownership following the 1857 independence battle/sepoy mutiny (depends on which way you look at it). 

Independent India repealed the laws but brought in an equally tight regime, setting up a licensing authority with a carte blanche to deny permits. It also restricted private manufacturing, while banning imports.

Unsurprisingly these restrictions  have meant that there is a thriving black market for arms and ammunition, ensuring a steady supply to all manner of criminals — people who don’t bother about the niceties of remaining within the purview of the law.    

[School children pay homage to Mumbai victims, Reuters pic by Pawan Kumar]

Citizens must jump through several hoops to get an arms licence and then pay high prices for ordinary products. But black market firearms are available at a small fraction of the cost of legal firearms. A country-made single shot handgun can cost as little as US $ 20, imported handguns go for US $ 500- $1,000, and AK-47′s (like the ones that were used in this attack) cost about US$ 1,500 or thereabouts on the black market according to this piece in the The American Thinker.

“There never was a clearer real life example of how gun control takes guns out of the hands of decent law-abiding folk and puts them right into the hands of criminals,” it said.

But can you really open up a nation of a billion people to guns and especially one where sectarian tensions are never far from the surface? Will it not lead to more violence? Is this a remedy worse than the disease?

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