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Gunning for Fair Arms Ownership in India 

Legal gun owners complain about India’s draconian arms laws that have been made stricter, and a red tape-ridden licensing system.

Anvita Cowshish, a young lawyer practising at the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court of India, decided to obtain a gun license in 2017 when she inherited a couple of her maternal grandfather’s civilian firearms. While the men in her family wanted to dispose of the heirloom guns, as they were deemed a “burden,” Cowshish wanted to keep the firearms because of the rising number of crimes against women in the country.

However, the Delhi-based lawyer is discovering that the upkeep of the old guns is an uphill task. The guns were bought in England in the 1970s, much before the Indian government prohibited import of guns by civilians in 1986 (the ban continues with exemptions for national and international shooters and government agencies).

“Not only is there a ban on import of firearms by civilians, we can’t even source spare parts for firearms from abroad,” she says. “A crack has developed on my British shotgun and I have no choice but to opt for locally made spare parts for repair.”

She adds that civilians with valid gun licences in India can’t get weapons of their choice easily. Either they have to approach Indian ordnance factories and wait, in most cases, for years for their guns; or settle for poor-quality second-hand firearms that their owners wish to dispose of.

Cowshish is not alone. She is among many licensed gun owners in India who complain of being forced to make do with antiquated foreign firearms bought before the ban on their import; or with firearms manufactured by government ordnance factories.

The NAGRI delegation at the Indian Parliament. (Courtesy of NAGRI)

“Most Indian licensed gun owners have been restricted to buying substandard and overpriced products made by the ordnance factories,” says Delhi-based Abhijeet Singh, secretary and spokesperson for the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI) that has been fighting for liberal gun laws for more than a decade now.

Forty-one ordnance factories under the Ordnance Factory Board (OFB) (https://ofb.gov.in), that has its headquarters in Kolkata, produce and sell a wide range of arms and ammunition. OFB functions under the Indian Ministry of Defence.

Gun rights activists say that the entry of international brands in the Indian civilian gun market can perhaps be a solution for the quality issue. Polymer-frame Glock pistols may soon be available for civilians. Glock guns are primarily meant for military, police and special forces personnel.

Indian gun laws are notoriously strict. (Courtesy of Jay Rembert/Unsplash)

Tamil Nadu-based Counter Measures Technologies (CMT) Pvt. Ltd. entered into a partnership with Glock Ges.m.b.H, Austria, last year to produce the pistols. If all goes well, CMT, whose primary focus is on government end users, could be selling Glock pistols to civilians, under the Make-in-India initiative, by March next year.

“There has been a delay due to the pandemic. But we are now back on track and doing our best to meet the end of March 2021 deadline,” says Jayakumar Jayarajan, one of the Indian company’s directors and major shareholder.

The guns will be produced at the company’s manufacturing plant in the state’s Tiruvallur district. The company is also working on the details of the distribution-dealership network and selling the products from the facility premises can be a possibility within the parameters of India’s Arms Act, according to Jayarajan.

“Glock pistols from Austria are a gun-owners’ delight — they are known for their durability, functionality and trigger safety features,” says Jaipur-based Shagun Chowdhary, an ace Indian shooter and the first Indian woman to qualify for the Olympic trap shooting event. “It is a welcome move to have them manufactured in India under the ‘Make-in-India’ banner. Access to better quality products is what every customer desires.”

Singh says that most international gun makers who are setting up shop in India are looking primarily at the government market, but a few are open to selling some of their products in the civilian market as well.

But, of course, in India, one cannot just walk into a shop and buy a gun. In countries like the USA, owning a gun is a constitutional right – in India, it is more of a privilege. The Second Amendment to the American Constitution gives citizens the right to bear arms.

India, on the other hand, has some of the strictest gun laws in the world. Many legal gun owners in the country feel that gun laws enshrined in the Arms Act, 1959 and the Arms Rules, 1962 are extremely constrictive or draconian, even though the primary objective of the law is to ensure that ordinary citizens can, through a multi-layered legal process, acquire non-prohibited arms for self-defense or for sports.

The BJP-led government further tightened the Arms Act a few months ago. Among other things, as per the provisions of the Arms (Amendment) Act, 2019, the maximum number of firearms a person can legally own in India has been reduced from three to two.

“Those in possession of three firearms have been given facility to retain any two of such firearms and to deposit the remaining firearm by 13.12.2020,” said a government press release early this year. This particular amendment has become a thorny issue for many. “Reducing the total number of firearms to two serves no demonstrable public good; it restricts law-abiding citizens, but does nothing to restrict criminals who own any number and type of illegal firearms,” says Singh.

Then there are red tape issues that gun license applicants in India have to grapple with. “I applied for the license in 2017 and received it after one-and-a-half years, thanks to inordinate procedural delay,” says Cowshish. “We had to run from pillar to post just to get the wheel moving.”

Chowdhary feels that more and more women should be applying for gun licenses across India. “Looking at the rising crime rate against women in India, it is imperative to encourage more and more women to procure gun licenses for their own safety,” she says. “Having said that, I feel that there should also be enough academies or ranges in India that can teach civilians all about gun safety and how to use firearms properly.”

Licensed gun owners say that before one can think of procuring firearms, there’s a need to look at the macro issues plaguing gun ownership in India. The first step should be an effort on part of the authorities to make gun laws more flexible, they say.

But there’s a strong arms control movement in India as well with activists strongly advising against liberalising gun laws. “If we look at the existing, unorganized ‘gun culture’ in India, I’d say that we need stringent laws,” says Ashima Kaul, founder-member of Control Arms Foundation of India (CAFI) and founder of the Yakjah Reconciliation and Development Network, engaged in youth development and peace-building efforts in Jammu and Kashmir.

“Guns in the hands of the majority can prove to be very oppressive for the minorities. The danger of this looms large not just in Jammu and Kashmir but across India as well,” she says.

Twelve Indians die every day due to gun violence, according to a Control Arms Foundation of India report. “We have seen how this ‘gun culture’ can impact women’s lives in violence-prone states like Manipur. Instead of focusing on liberal laws for gun ownership, we should look at policies that seek to contain wanton proliferation of illegal arms in the country,” says Kaul.

The peace activist maintains that India should never go the American way insofar as gun laws are concerned. “Why should India copy the USA or any other country for that matter?” counters Abhijeet Singh of NAGRI. “We do not advocate gun ownership without the need for an arms license. We are simply in favour of an arms licensing system that is free of graft, fear or favour.”

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Anindita Ghosh)