Will allowing guns make India a better country?

ALOK PRASANNA writes from Hyderabad: Of the many pieces of colonial legislation that still stay with us today, the Arms Act is one that is perhaps most “colonial” in nature. In its present form, the Arms Act of 1959, which is pretty much a copy of the older Raj-era legislation, prohibits the possession, acquisition and bearing of guns without a license.

On the face of it, it seems a fairly reasonable thing. Who can possibly argue that we need to de-regulate the possession, acquisition, etc of arms?

Presenting Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the US court of appeals in the ninth circuit.

A maverick in his own right, Judge Kozinski is well known for his judgments in intellectual property law, constitutional law and competition Law, but one judgment of his in particular struck me as I read it. More specifically, a couple of passages in his dissenting opinion in the case of Silviera v. Lockyer where he makes a fascinating non-legal argument against State control of gun ownership.

“…the simple truth-born of experience-is that tyranny thrives best where government need not fear the wrath of an armed people. Our [American] own sorry history bears this out: Disarmament was the tool of choice for subjugating both slaves and free blacks in the South. In Florida, patrols searched blacks’ homes for weapons, confiscated those found and punished their owners without judicial process….

“All too many of the other great tragedies of history-Stalin‘s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few-were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece… If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars.

“… few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed-where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.”

If we examine major events in Indian history, we can begin to appreciate his argument. After the experience of the 1857 Revolt, the colonial regime obviously did not want us natives to get our hands on too many weapons which we could use to threaten the regime.

The Arms Act of 1878 was one way of depriving Indians the means to attack and challenge an oppressive and exploitative regime. This becomes even more obvious when we see that the same restrictions do not apply to “Europeans” living in India. This was not a unique Indian experience as the native populace was routinely disarmed by the victorious colonisers.

When we attained Independence, through mostly peaceful means, the Government thought it fit to continue this colonial policy, albeit without the discrimination between Indians and Europeans. The Indian state was supposed to be the sole wielder of violent force, and would use it to come to the defence of the weak and oppressed against their enemies.

Why do you need guns when you got the police?

Unfortunately, we have seen that it is not so. We have seen the State take the side of the oppressors against the oppressed. We have seen the State actively disarm threatened minorities (Sikhs in Punjab, Muslims in Gujarat,), and idly stand by as atrocities are committed by a rampaging mob (against Dalits).

Generally, violence of any sort in India is almost inevitably mob violence. It is rarely, if ever, the single maniac, or a single serial killer. Generally, it is not even called “violence” until the other side hits back. That is when “agitations”, “movements”, etc become “warfare”, “riots” and the like.

Guns are a great “force multiplier”, to use military terms. As we have repeatedly seen, a single volley of bullets is usually enough to disperse an otherwise dangerous and angry mob.

Should we therefore give our citizens the means to defend themselves against not just against the hate-mob but also the State itself?

When we know the partisan role the police have played in riots and mob violence, can we trust them with regulating the one means of defence the weaker side has in times of violence?

Would mobs think twice about using their sheer numbers to unleash violence when they know that the response will be equally bloody and violent?

Is it time to say “Hasta la vista, baby” to the Arms Act?

Also read: A gun owner who takes a similar line of argument as Judge Kozinski