(This article was first published on 22 July 2021. It has been republished from The Quint's archives after an 18-year-old gunman killed at least 19 students and three adults in an elementary school in Texas on Tuesday, 24 May.)
I once facetiously joked to a Canadian friend, “why isn’t Canada, the 51st state”?
Canada of course was, “right there, it’s America lite, and sure it’s a little colder, hence the sobriquet of Great White North and has a Prime Minister, as its part of the Commonwealth, still has the Queen as the head of state and uses the metric system”.
But even then, it was so North American, that for me, I joked to the same friend, perhaps the fact that Canada has strict gun laws and doesn’t have the same madness of gun violence, makes it why it’s “not America”.
For the Indian diaspora, they have come a long way from the archaic stereotypes of the 70s, accompanied with derogatory “third worldisation” of snake charmers and those fakirs and their bed of nails.
A World Where Indian Diaspora Hasn't Quite Assimilated Itself
While tropes are tropes, there is still some of the assuaging comforting factor in the Indian American diaspora being seen for their medical prowess, that ubiquity of that Dr Patel as the article notes, the taken for granted Indian American Spelling Bee champion, and Indian-born diaspora at the highest echelons of the private sector and public office. It’s no wonder, that Nikki Haley, President Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, profoundly said: “mostly we’re just good at being Americans.”
Perhaps, there is a world that the Indian diaspora hasn’t easily assimilated into, one that Nikki Haley, a Republican and a Southerner from the state of South Carolina would be all too familiar with – Guns, Glory and God-Fearing Americans.
Now the exact number of Indian Americans who possess a firearm is as nebulous as the NRA’s arguments for gun ownership, but largely the belief has been echoed through this sacrosanctity of America being the bastion of freedom and somehow guns are those weapons that epitomise freedom, self-defence and sport.
India, as a nation, has had every problem known to the modern-day nation state: from poverty, to crime, to malnutrition, to corruption, to terrorism to natural disasters, but increasing death toll due to gun violence in the hands of everyday citizens, it has not. It’s fellow BRICS members, particularly in the Global South, Brazil and South Africa, have seen increased gun violence in the favelas of Rio De Janeiro and the townships bordering Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Even the “dishoom, dishoom” that Bollywood of the 1970s to 1990s has immortalised has been through large mustachio villains with firearms, and not senseless madness of mass shootings involving innocent civilians. As this article states, perhaps, there has always been a sense of “ahimsa” (espousing non-violence) that has been prevalent and pervasive in society.
India and the United States attained independence close to two centuries apart, but their stories of independence from the British are equally as distanced in process as they are with time.
The Gandhian way of non-violence and civil disobedience is incongruous with the story of the Revolutionary War fought by George Washington that featured gunpowder and muskets.
Perhaps, it’s no wonder that the right to bear firearms is codified in the Bill of Rights through the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which explicitly states “a well-regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms shall not be infringed”.
More Guns Than Citizens in America
And ergo America now possesses close to 390 million guns, making it more guns than citizens, as 40 percent of Americans say they or someone in their household owns a gun, and 22 percent of individuals (about 72 million people) report gun ownership. According to the Small Arms Survey here, the US has more gun ownership than Yemen, which is in the throngs of a civil war and facing massive political unrest.
One would have to say that when it comes to understanding politics in America, foreigners perhaps may find it easier to understand the electoral college over protected gun laws and systematic cyclic violence stemming from it and the regurgitated politicking defending gun ownership.
Debating guns in America is not just an ethical or humanitarian issue, more often than not, it is polarising party lines and where you sit is where you stand.
Like many laws inherited from the British, the gun laws in India too according to this article, stem from colonial rule, as the Raj aimed to suppress dissent or violent uprisings (having learned from the Revolutionary War) through strict gun laws. It’s no wonder, as the same report says that “an American is 12 times more likely than an Indian to be killed by a firearm”.
It comes back to Freedom Fries, the concept of the Second Amendment being the “freedom and right” to bear arms more than about guns. For many, the pushback is so strong that stricter gun laws is the notion of the big bad wolf government, coming to take away one’s guns, as Alex Jones screeched and reminded us all. Hence, some see it as the obsession with being free more than obsession with guns.
The National Rifle Association (NRA), the premier gun rights advocacy group has a credo “the only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” Wonder, if they considered the possibility of a bad guy with a water pistol and a good guy with the water pistol, or a good guy with a gun and a bad guy on the run, that would be a much more utopic scenario.
For Americans, Gun Ownership is Self-Protection
Politically, Indian Americans, close to 80 percent identify or vote Democratic, whereas gun ownership and gun advocacy has largely moved to the right and become synonymous with the GOP.
It’s ironic, that a party that is staunchly “pro-life” advocates for instruments that do result in excessive loss of lives.
Even flaming liberal and leading progressive, Bernie Sanders, a staunch self-identified Democratic Socialist, who appealed to many Indian Americans, voted against the Brady Bill around five times, which advocates for background checks on people. His Democratic opponents, Secretary Hilary Clinton in 2016 and then Vice President Joe Biden in 2020, went after him for his record on this issue.
Gun owners proudly express disdain for big government, stressing individual liberties over the collective. For Sanders, a staunch socialist, this should have been reviled ad-nauseum. However, Senator Sanders hails from Vermont, a rural state in New England, and big on hunting, another aspect many Americans regard as inviolable along with “freedom”, so it wouldn’t sit well with his constituency.
There is another reason, why many Americans value gun ownership, the concept of “self-protection”. The Reaganesque belief, that governments don’t solve problems, which even means law enforcement in this case. The country has long had a “Do-It-Yourself (DIY)” culture from fixing faucets to procuring firearms. So, if, there is a trouble in your neighborhood, some prefer to rely on their 9mm over 911.
Gun ownership may not resonate with Indian immigrants as much as it may with say some immigrants who have seen tyrannical oppression growing up and spoken about how gun ownership may have precluded despots from taking over and subjugating the masses.
I was once driving with an Indian American friend of mine, in a high-end neighbourhood in Atlanta, Georgia, and we reached our destination at the Cul-De-Sac. I said growing up in India, the notion was always that gated communities had increased security. What’s to stop someone from walking in here and approaching a house, after all there is no security.
He smirked and said, “would you believe it, guns, the one with nefarious intentions knows that the likelihood is very high, that the house he targets will likely have a gun”.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington DC, and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)