No country is safe! Guns are flowing into India, and the streets are becoming a dangerous place. Ride-by shootings, random killings and the crime rate is going up.
Every few weeks there’s a new story. A motorist pulls a pistol to clear a traffic jam. An armed gang shoots and kills a young woman returning home late at night when she refuses to pull over to be robbed or raped. A man pumps a bullet into the skull of his fiancee when she decides to call off their marriage. Thugs gun down a real estate broker over a business deal. A businessman — drunk and angry over losing his job — shoots his wife, daughter and son before he turns his gun on himself. A middle-aged woman who berates two roadside Romeos for harassing her daughter is shot dead for her trouble. Or the police shoot and kill traders trying to escape with a stash of smuggled guns. In north India, and increasingly across other parts of the country, it seems, the emergent “India Shining” of election campaign slogans may turn out to be nickel-plated.
Nationwide, around 40 million firearms — only about 5.5 million of them licensed — are in civilian hands. That’s the second-highest total in the world, after the U.S., though it amounts to only four guns for every 100 people in India, compared with 90 guns for every 100 Americans. And despite relatively strict gun control laws, police and anti-proliferation activists say the number of weapons on the street is growing steadily.
“We have weapons ranging from homemade guns, which are called kattas, right [up] to [fire]arms as sophisticated as the [American] M-16 and Israeli Uzi,” said Binalakshmi Nepram, head of the Control Arms Foundation of India. “And in places like Uttar Pradesh, they say gun shops are mushrooming like public telephone booths.”
India’s most populous state — and known as one of its most economically depressed — Uttar Pradesh has around 900,000 licensed gun owners, and several times that number of illegal arms. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, Uttar Pradesh, and two other northern “cow belt” states, Bihar and Jharkhand, accounted for two-thirds of India’s gun-related homicides in 2008, the most recent year for which statistics have been collected.
But the killing isn’t confined to the backwaters of these so-called “lawless states.” Just as in the United States and other countries, gun crime is an urban phenomenon. Fearful city dwellers are clamoring for gun licenses to protect themselves from criminals. And, increasingly, the weapons of the mushrooming illegal rural factories of states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh — along with the culture of the gun — are finding their way into India’s cities.