Why you should care
Because the U.S. isn’t the only country dealing with gun controversies.
One recent morning, Dibendyu Dutta rose at 6 a.m. to catch a three-hour train back to the city of his childhood, Kharagpur. He made for his family house, retrieved a case and brought it to the local police station. He handed over the case the police. Ten minutes, some questions and a few signatures later, it was time to get back on the train to make it home in time for dinner.
The case? It contained a gun, and Dutta, like the estimated 6 million registered gun owners in India, was performing a civic duty that would make many Americans cringe: He was forfeiting his weapon during election season. Bureaucracy! Government arms seizures! Are you weeping yet, NRA?
Dutta’s journey provides some insight into India’s high-scrutiny and rather strange gun laws. Yes, Americans might find the questions about liberty, security and paternalism familiar. But in India, the paternalism still rings of colonial indignity — and the bureaucracy seems very strange indeed. There are some 34 million illegal firearms dotting the national landscape, according to Gun Policy, feeding conflict zones in the northeast and here in West Bengal, and a thriving illegal trade along the Bangladesh border. In other words, the vast majority of India’s gun owners hold them illegally, sans license, registration or baroque, election-season forfeitures.
Rakshit Sharma, secretary general of the National Association for Gun Rights India (NAGRI), tells a common story of bribery associated with getting a gun. The airline captain, who’s enjoyed shooting in Florida among other places, says it took three years to get licenses for his small revolver, handgun and other inherited family arms. “If my family knew the right people, I would have had it within a week.” Sharma says he doesn’t want laws relaxed, “just a bit more logical.” The system is, he says, “archaic, draconian, colonial.”
Owners are also restricted in how many cartridges they can buy per year, meaning few could actually practice.
Sharma’s anti-gun rivals agree. The enforcement of gun laws favors the privileged, says Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary general of the Control Arms Foundation of India. (The Internal Security division of the Ministry of Home Affairs did not respond to multiple requests for comment.) That is in line with American trends too: Men tend to own more guns than women, and as Columbia University public health researchers found in a 2015 study, those who love their firearms are generally over 55 and high income.
The privilege has a different tint in India. Like the law itself, the Arms Act of 1959 — which inherited its logic from British rule — many gun owners want to keep their weapons because they ring of a time when owning a small firearm marked you as part of fancy imperial circles. Dutta, for instance, doesn’t know how to shoot his gun, but he keeps it because it was a gift to his grandfather from a Brit. “The British felt very secure,” Sharma says of their habits of gifting guns. “They felt, these are the people we can work with; a commoner cannot own a gun.”
Speaking of knowing how to fire, Dutta, a dentist, says he was supposed to be tested on shooting as part of the licensing process. An owner ought to know how to fire his own weapon, right? But no one ever asked Dutta to prove he knew how to use it. There were no psych screenings or probing background checks, he says. Instead, police officers asked generic “profile” questions — his occupation, his parents’ history, where he grew up, etc. Owners are also restricted in how many cartridges they can buy per year: around 25, which, Sharma says, isn’t enough to practice with, meaning few could actually learn to use the weapon.
Sharma worries government discussions about toughening up the Arms Act will turn even more discriminatory. There have been other potentially misguided attempts to even the playing field — like the revolver Nirbheek, manufactured just for women, and named in tribute to Nirbhaya, the woman brutally gang-raped and murdered in Delhi in 2012. It’s a small gun meant to fit in a purse. “It is an insult to the memory of Nirbhaya,” Nepram says. The gun costs around $2,000 — unaffordable for most women who’d “need” the weapon (if you believe in necessity). The Ordnance Factories, which manufactures the gun, did not reply to multiple requests for comment.
On an afternoon in downtown Kolkata, I knocked on the door of the D.N. Biswas and Company gun shop. The sign said “Open,” so I made to enter. Two attendants rushed to block my path. I peered behind one. “Police?” Yes. The police were there, performing an inspection, presumably poring through sales records and the like. It was election season, and paranoia was in the air. “What are they looking for?” I asked. “I’m not comfortable telling you that,” one of the attendants said. “It’s too dangerous to speak about these things.”