A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed
— US Constitution: Second Amendment (Bill of Rights)
The recent tragedy in Colorado, where a madcap PhD student opened unprovoked fire at a crowd of movie-watchers in Aurora, killing 12, has shocked the nation. (The last such ghastly incident was in April 2007 at the Virginia Tech state university when a mentally unstable student of South Korean origin went on a rampage, killing 32 people) The incident has reopened the traditional debate on the perils of a liberal gun law.
The US is notorious for having a string of generous legislations that facilitate easy buying of firearms by anyone, even one who has a psychological illness. The Second Amendment, which incorporates the Bill of Rights, guarantees citizens the right to possess firearms. All courts, including the US Supreme Court, have repeatedly held that the right is not merely of the State, but of the individual citizen as well, dispelling all doubts about whether the Founding Fathers had only public authorities in mind while referring to a ‘militia’.
They have also uniformly taken the position that there cannot be total abrogation of the right, and that, at best, the executive could impose a few reasonable restrictions, like a background check for a concealed criminal record with a mandatory waiting period for clearance and the state of mental health of the prospective gun buyer. Otherwise, it is as good as a free-for-all, something that intimidates visitors from other countries where there are severe regulations pertaining to buying and owning a firearm.
While the powerful and influential National Rifle Association in the US jealously guards the right of citizens to freely own and carry firearms (concealed in transit and from open public display in normal times) across the country, those who are opposed to this laxity have been carrying on a relentless campaign for more restrictions.
The NRA’s influence can be gauged from the facts that presidential aspirant Mitt Romney has resiled from his earlier stance as governor in favour of heavily restricted gun rights, and President Obama has discreetly evaded the issue, despite his known abhorrence of firearms in private hands.
The general feeling in the US is that the anti-gun lobby is fast losing ground. The factor that weighs heavily against them is the marked drop in overall crime in the country, although murders using firearms remain high at more than 60% of all homicides. The pro-gun lobby says such tragedies are the product of a sick mind rather than one resulting from free availability of guns. They say more guns in the market do not readily mean more crime, a stand that is buttressed by a nationwide downward trend in violent crime (homicides dropped by more than 5% during the first few months of 2011).
This is no doubt a deceptive argument, because it is nobody’s case that every citizen who possesses a gun misuses it. It is the sheer inability of public authorities to identify and take care of the mentally imbalanced and deny them any opportunity to obtain weapons that is the core of the problem.
The Virginia Tech assassin, Seung-Hui Cho, managed to secure two handguns despite having known psychiatric problems. Holmes, the Aurora offender, is said to have possessed three firearms. He has a known history of depression during the past few years when, from a brilliant academic, he turned into a recluse and a drop-out.
To cap it all, he admitted to have booby-trapped his residence, an act that clearly smacks of a badly deranged mind.
Despite the bravado of US policymakers that occurrences like Virginia Tech and Aurora cannot be attributed to loose gun regulation, there is a lurking fear in most American minds that free availability of guns is dangerous to the average peace-loving citizen. When you walk the US streets, you will have to presume that a stalker or anyone who confronts you has a weapon on his person. This is the psyche that persuades many law enforcement personnel to open fire in a jiffy at an individual, however mildly the latter may challenge the former’s authority.
We in India are far better off. The absence of guns explains why there are fewer murders, if one takes into account the fact that we are no less a violent nation than the US. We have nearly as many attempts to murder as there are murders only because the victim invariably escapes with serious injuries caused by weapons other than firearms.
There are no trends as yet that the phenomenon of unlicensed weapons is escalating in our country. A restrictive and honestly-implemented licencing policy has worked well. But for how long, few of us know. The corruption that permeates administration should not be allowed to percolate down to the routine that attends grant of gun licences.
If this is not taken seriously we are in for trouble soon, especially because there is no accurate study on the availability of unlicensed crude guns in some parts of the country, like UP and Bihar.
The writer is a former CBI director