New Delhi: As mass shooting incidents in the United States rise, India has tightened its firearms regulations, making it even more difficult for common citizens to own a gun.
India already had one of the strictest gun laws in the world, a vestige of British colonial rule, which aimed to disarm its subjects. India law allows citizens to own and carry guns, but it is not a right enshrined in the constitution. Getting a gun license in India is a difficult task that can take years.
Now, in the most ambitious restructuring of arms rules in over five decades, the government has made the laws even tougher. Under the new rules, prospective gun owners will have to show they have been trained, only carry firearms in holders and secure them in a "knocked down" condition in gun lockers at home. The government will declare new gun-free zones, in addition to schools, across the country. Even air guns will require an arms license.
The new gun restrictions are not a reaction to recent violence. The process has taken five years, but it quickened after Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected in 2014. The rules were put into effect in July and will be presented in Parliament.
An official in the ministry of home affairs, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media, said the changes aim "to bring in transparency in the arms control regime, prevent, combat and eradicate illicit trade in small arms and light weapons . . . and bring in the contemporary practices in international laws."
The changes have riled the nascent gun rights group here called the National Association for Gun Rights India.
"We are very disappointed. What the government is saying is that it cannot trust its citizens," said Rahoul Rai, president of the group. "Last few years we have discussed with the government steps to remove the harassment law abiding citizens face in getting firearm licenses. One shouldn't have to jump through 25 hoops to get a license. Unfortunately, they have created a situation where people will get desperate and will end up getting illegal guns."
From now on, the official who issues or denies the gun license will also have to write down the reasons. Rai says this is unworkable because no bureaucrat will "stick his neck out." Licenses are issued for three categories: self-defense, sports and crop protection.
The official said that "imminent" threat has been replaced with "anticipated" threat because the former was "difficult to prove" for applicants.
India shifted from century-old manual record keeping recently and uploaded information about 2.6 million gun license holders in a national digital database.
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, gun-related deaths increased from 3,063 to 3,655 between 2010 and 2014. There were 10 times that number in 2013 in the United States.
But only 14 percent of the victims were killed by licensed guns in 2014 in India. The rest were killed by illegal weapons, largely prevalent in the hinterlands.
An American is 12 times more likely to be killed by a firearm than an Indian, according to an analysis by the group IndiaSpend, based on the database collated by Gun Policy, a global gun watch group.
India, along with countries such as Australia, has among the tightest gun laws in the world compared with the United States, which has some of the most lenient.
In the United States, gun dealers send buyer information to the FBI for a criminal background check. But some estimate that nearly 40 percent of gun sales occur online or at gun shows, where no questions are asked. A concealed-carry permit is needed to take a loaded gun in public, and U.S. states and cities have broad discretion to decide who gets them.
Activists say India should not go the American way.
"Some Indians are inspired by the easy American culture of buying guns off the counter," said Binalakshmi Nepram, founder of Control Arms Foundation of India. "We are a country that won independence from colonial rulers without firing a single shot. Making it easy for citizens to arm themselves would mean the state admits that it has failed to provide security."
For the first time, however, the government has allowed citizens to have licensed electronic disabling devices such as taser guns -- a step many say will boost women's safety. After the fatal gang rape of a young student in a moving bus in 2012, women have begun carrying pepper spray in their purses and learning martial arts. The government even introduced a lighter gun for women.
The official said that such devices will also be used to guard banks, toll plazas and other public places.
Even as the new rules make it difficult for average citizens to own guns, it has cleared the way for local manufacturing of guns by private companies, in line with Modi's push for defense production. In June, Modi allowed 100 percent foreign investment in the defense sector.
"This is the green signal we were waiting for," said Ashok Wadhawan, president of manufacturing at Punj Lloyd, which has a partnership with the Israel Weapon Industries. "At first, we will be selling them to the Indian army and the police. It is extremely prestigious for them to hold an Indian rifle instead of an imported rifle."
But the most puzzling move for many is that air guns, blank fire guns and paintballs are now classified as weapons that will require a license, which is vexing for sport enthusiasts.
The official said that this was done to check "potential misuse," because with some "machining and drilling" they may be converted into firearms.
"Overnight, my son is a criminal," said Chandan Agarwal, a gun owner and entrepreneur.
"Nobody has started a rebellion in any country with an air gun,"said Abhijeet Singh, the 43-year old software engineer and gun owner who set up the India for Guns website.
© 2016 The Washington Post
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