The incident of a Delhi pub-owner “accidentally” shooting himself dead last week has shocked us alright. It has also raked afresh the debate about responsible use of firearms.
The US has been roiling with protests of late, led by the nation’s students and the young survivors of the recent Parkland shooting that killed 17. It’s a backlash to the prevailing gun culture that sees ordinary citizens, including mentally unstable ones, easily and legally purchase firearms.
With each new mass shooting, the topic of gun laws has become more ubiquitous. This is unsurprising, as a narrative as simplistic as laws funded by an arms organisation allowing every citizen to recklessly purchase a gun and kill, lends itself to opinion by all. So what are India’s gun laws like, and should we be worried?
Gun laws in India are quite stringent. Strict gun control laws in our country are a remnant of suppression by the British Raj. Owing to pockets of violence due to illegal weapons after the 1857 sepoy mutiny, the Arms Act of 1878 was enacted under the viceroyship of Lord Lytton.
It was the first step in mandating a license for gun ownership, albeit unfairly, as British citizens and Anglo-Indians in the country were allowed to hold weapons without restriction.
Grounds on Which Indians Can Own Guns
Fast forwarding to free India, the independent government consolidated and enacted the Arms Act of 1959 (full text here). The Act underwent several changes after that, with the most notable ones being in 2010 and then recently in 2016. Full text of the currently valid Arms Rules 2016 is here (English text starts at page 134.)
Indians are allowed to own guns for three primary reasons:
- professional sporting,
- crop protection.
Of the three reasons, the last facilitates mass ownership of guns. Thus, states and regions where farmlands are plenty such as Uttar Pradesh have a flourishing illegal gun industry as a result of wide legal gun ownership.
To obtain a gun, an individual needs to first procure a license. Licenses are issued state-wise; it’s near impossible to obtain a central license that allows a citizen to carry a gun legally in more than one state. The gun license application form (a Haryana sample here), called Form A, has its own set of prerequisites that need to be fulfilled before submission:
- The first of these is to declare the reason for gun ownership: in case of self-defence, the applicant has to show proof of credible threat to life. Protection from wild animals also qualifies here. This is usually in the form of an FIR. For sporting events, the applicant shows professional qualification certificates, and for crops, land documents.
- The next step is producing proof that the applicant has the knowledge and ability to handle a gun. This requires one to first complete a training course which includes safe use and handling, and understanding the responsibilities of gun ownership.
- In some states, applicants also need to attach two character certificates from “prominent members of the community” that attest to their trustworthiness to possess a weapon. This was mandated before 2016 for all states. This then-mandatory part of the license application for the male Indian cricket team’s captain MS Dhoni kicked up a storm back in 2008.
- The applicant also needs to show proof that they have the facility to store their guns safely.
- Also to be attached with the application are certificates of physical and mental fitness.
- Additional documents required are passport photos, proof of date of birth, address, and ID.
Once all the above conditions are met, documents procured, and application submitted, the licensing authority then calls upon the police to conduct background checks.
This is a process that takes a minimum of one month and can go up to three months (on paper) but may take much longer in reality.
The process requires the police to interview the applicant and their family for personal history, their neighbours for any signs of misdemeanour or domestic violence, check their criminal history and their neighbourhood for possible crimes, their mental health, tendencies towards violence or sexual abuse, and more.
Tougher Gun Laws Than the US
When the police officer-in-charge files his or her report, the state licensing authority then decides if the applicant can be granted a license. All reasons for acceptance or rejection are meant to be meticulously and electronically documented.
An arms license comes with its own unique identification number (UIN) and a license book. Upon acquiring a licence, the applicant must procure a firearm within two years. This isn’t easy either. Civilians are allowed to purchase only Non-Prohibited Bore (NPB) category weapons.
This means that bolt action guns, and semi-automatic weapons are prohibited for civilians but can be procured in exceptional cases, like for security purposes of celebrities, politicians, or anyone whose life is at constant risk by nature of their profession. Fully automatic weapons, ie: guns that discharge as long as the trigger is pushed down, and weapons that can discharge gases, are thoroughly banned and can be possessed by no one.
The Indian Ordinance Factory is the only legal manufacturer of arms in India, and all purchases are to be made from weapons it has produced. Import of weapons is disallowed without explicit permission. Guns can be purchased either at a factory outlet near the licensee or through a licensed arms dealer only.
Restrictions on Gun Ownership
To apply for the purchase of a weapon, the form must not only include copies of the licensee’s documents such as photos and license, but also have no-objection certificates (NOC) from licensing authorities for the police and the factory.
Additionally, once the gun is purchased, transporting it to the licensee also requires a transport license on the part of the arms dealer.
Upon procuring a weapon, the owner is required to submit it for inspection to the local licensing authority. The officer retains the weapon, examines it for authenticity and safety, and then marks it down in the owner’s license book as well as in their own records.
Possessing a gun comes with its own set of restrictions too. For guns that are procured for crop protection or threat from wildlife, surrendering them after the harvest season is mandatory under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. During election season, all weapons need to be temporarily surrendered to the licensing authority to maintain calm.
On a normal day, citizens with guns have to first ensure they have a holster or a sack that will fit their gun snugly, and also make sure that they do not flaunt the weapon in public. Additionally, citizens aren’t allowed to carry guns into gun-free zones such as schools, hospitals, theatres, malls, restaurants, and nearly any public place.
(Sandhya Ramesh is a science journalist and can be reached at @sandygrains. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)