Licence to Kill?

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Gun culture There are more licensed guns in Lucknow district alone than in the entire state of Gujarat
Gun culture There are more licensed guns in Lucknow district alone than in the entire state of Gujarat. Photo: AFP

In Uttar Pradesh, private citizens possess nearly five times more firearms than the police force. An affidavit filed with the Lucknow Bench of the Allahabad High Court by the state’s principal home secretary last October reveals that a total of 11.23 lakh gun licences have been issued to 11.02 lakh private citizens in the state. If the much larger number of unauthorised weapons manufactured in illegal arms factories or smuggled into the state from across the border is taken into account, the picture becomes far more scary.

This is in sharp contrast to the number of firearms with the state police force. The 2.15 lakh-strong police force has just 2.5 lakh firearms.

Moreover, 35,698 people possess two gun licences and, in violation of Section 2(3) of the Arms Act, 5,959 have three licences and 55, more than three.

The affidavit also reveals that 5,370 of the people holding gun licences have criminal trials pending against them, while 1,061 have been named in FIRs lodged at various police stations.

Observing that “there is no evidence to establish that arming citizens has led to any improvement in the law and order situation”, the high court had sought to draw the government’s attention to the shocking fact that it was in some ways easier to get a gun licence than a driving licence. While “a driving test and biometric identification is necessary for obtaining a driving licence”, there is “no effective mechanism to verify the criminal background” of those who apply for gun licences. “Otherwise, 6,000 people (with criminal backgrounds) would not have been successful in obtaining the licence,” the court noted.

Since 2012, the high court has been issuing directives to the Central and the state governments to curb the menace of deaths resulting from “celebratory” firing and the rapid proliferation of licensed weapons. In November 2012, the court directed the Uttar Pradesh government to take appropriate action against those indulging in celebratory firing. It asked the government to take steps to regulate the carrying of arms in public places such as airports, railway stations, government schools, guest houses, circuit houses, religious places and community centres.

Despite the court’s intervention, however, incidents of celebratory firing resulted in the death of 720 people, including 125 women, in the state last year. In fact, around 60 percent of the total deaths across the country last year due to celebratory firing (1,260) were reported from Uttar Pradesh. To the police, all these were cases of “accidental death”. The gun licence of not even a single offender was cancelled even though celebratory firing has been banned in the state.

As per the UP Police records, of the 720 persons who died last year due to celebratory firing, 498 were breadwinners for their families. Most of women who died were watching wedding celebrations from the balcony or the rooftop when they were hit by bullets.

Almost two years after issuing its 2012 directive, the court noted in September that “the district magistrates have not yet conducted the proceedings for cancellation of arms licence of those who indulged in celebratory firing”. The government counsel, however, assured the court that all the district magistrates would be directed to pass appropriate orders on the merit of each case within a month.

Last October, the high court had directed the state government and the Centre to come up with a plan to regulate the grant of licence in such a manner that a balance is maintained between the number of weapons available with the law enforcement agencies and those with private citizens. It had also set up a committee headed by Professor Himanshu Rai of the Indian Institute of Management, Lucknow, to suggest ways to regulate the number of licensed weapons and curb incidents of celebratory firing. The court had also asked the committee to make a comparative study of the balance of privately-held arms and arms with the police in five neighbouring states — Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Haryana and Delhi.

In its report submitted to the high court recently, the Himanshu Rai Committee noted that the maximum number of deaths due to celebratory firing took place in Meerut (143), followed by Allahabad (27), Agra (18), Kanpur (16) and Ghaziabad (7). “In the highly feudal socio-cultural milieu of the state, celebratory firing has become a way of life and every occasion is marked by the firing of guns,” says DK Singh, a Lucknow-based social scientist.

The next hearing in the case is scheduled for 12 November. The Centre has been made a party to the case and will most likely submit a plan on how to go about striking a balance between the number of privately-held arms and those possessed by the law enforcement agencies. The court has also directed the state government to furnish details of how many licences held by people with criminal records have been cancelled and file an action-taken report on the recommendations of the Himanshu Rai Committee.

On the direction of the high court, a moratorium has been imposed on the issue of fresh gun licences since last October.

Close to 20 lakh applications for gun licences are pending with the district magistrates in 75 districts across the state. Nearly 50,000 of the applications, with all the required formalities completed, are from Lucknow district alone. There are already 48,436 licensed arms in this one district, which is more than the total number of licensed arms in the entire state of Gujarat (44,882).

Besides the ban on the issue of fresh licences, however, there has been little impact of judicial interventions in this matter.

Instead of curbing the proliferation of licensed weapons, the Uttar Pradesh government is passing the buck to the Centre. In September, the government counsel told the court that “arms licences are granted under the Arms Act as per the directives issued by the Central government” and so, “only the Central government can do something about it”. The court found the stand “quite intriguing” and said it was hopeful that the government would do a “rethink” on the issue “in the larger public interest”.

According to Additional Director General of Police (Rules and Manuals) Chandra Prakash, “a national database for arms licences is being prepared, which is scheduled to be completed by 1 October 2015”. “All licences not included in the national database shall automatically stand cancelled,” says Prakash. “The comparative figures of privately-held arms and arms with the police forces of five states are also being compiled.”

When a private citizen applies for a gun licence, the most commonly cited reason is “self-defence”. That is also the ground on which the licences are usually issued. But the licensed guns often end up being used for committing murders. According to data compiled by the National Crime Records Bureau, between 2008 and 2012, licensed weapons were used in 2,012 murders across the country. That figure alone should force introspection on the whole idea of granting gun licences. Until a stringent verification regime is put in place and rigorously implemented across the country, a gun licence remains, in effect, a licence to kill.

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