Firearms Law in India And Its Effectiveness

In the pre-modern societies, especially the ones strife with conflict and war, weapons were a necessity for people for self- defence and warfare. Over time, there has been a decrease in the necessity for arms in civilised societies, with an increase in government control on citizens. This change is manifested in the gun laws of many countries, especially those with colonial past like India and Australia, which have strict gun-control laws whereas in certain countries, like the USA and New Zealand the gun laws are less strict.

Indian arms law is one of the strictest in the world. Indian citizens are allowed to bear arms, but not as a constitutional right.

History of Firearm laws in Modern India

Firearm control in India, through codified law, can be traced back to the colonial period. A law for the regulation of the possession and use of arms among Indians was first introduced in 1857 in the wake of several armed uprisings against the colonial government in various parts of India, most notedly, the revolt of 1857. This law was replaced by another legislation, Act number XXXI of 1860, titled “An Act relating to the manufacture, importation and sale of Arms and Ammunition, and for regulating the right to keep and use the same, and to give the power of disarming in certain cases”.  

The latter, in turn, was repealed by theIndian Arms Act of 1878. These laws regulated the production, sale and use of arms including arms other than firearms by Indians, without affecting the British in India. The Indian Arms Act of 1878, was in force for just over a decade after independence. It was finally replaced by the Indian Arms Act of 1959. The legislation like its predecessors is supplemented by Arms Rules of 1962 and 2016. The legislation has also undergone several amendments over the years.

Who can legally own arms in India?

Persons who want to own arms in India usually have to obtain a license for the same as provided under sections 3 and 4 of the Act. While Section 3 pertains to firearms and their ammunition, Section 4 pertains to arms other than firearms that the Central Government may feel needs to be regulated. However, certain categories of people have been granted exemption from these obligations under Section 41 of the Act. Before an amendment in the Act in 1983, there were no restrictions on the number of firearms a licensee could own. However, with the amendment, a cap of three firearms per licensee was placed under Section 3.

Recently, in December 2019, the parliament passed the Arms (Amendment) Act, 2019. One of the main changes this amendment made in the Act was the reduction of the cap to two firearms per licensee. Sportspersons and certain classes of associations have certain relaxations on the maximum number of firearms they can own. Violation of these Section 3 and Section 4 is punishable with imprisonment for a term not less than one year but which may extend to three years and also a fine under Section 25.

License is required for the manufacture and sale of firearms and ammunition under Section 5, conversion of imitation firearms into firearms under Section 6 and their import and export under Section 10. Punishment for violation of these sections too is mentioned in Section 25.

Does the law regulating firearms serve its purpose?

The Arms Act aims to eliminate arms-related crime by regulating the circulation of firearms in India. Through the grant of licenses, the state intends to keep a tab on the number of arms and ammunition in the country. However, this is based on a flawed assumption that all persons seeking to own arms would apply for a license. The procedure for seeking firearms licenses is a painstakingly time consuming and bureaucratic one, leading to aspiring gun owners’ skipping the process altogether. India is estimated to have had 7,11,01,000 firearms out of which 6,14.01,000 were unregistered.[1]

According to information published by the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2018, 74,877 arms and 1,08,444 ammunition were seized by the police under the Arms Act across India out of which 71,135 arms and 1,03,683 ammunition were unlicensed.[2] This shows that the majority of arms in India is unlicensed and most firearm-related crimes were committed using unlicensed firearms.

Crimes in India are mostly non-firearm related. In 2018, a total of 10,40,046 cases of offences against the human body were registered in India whereas a total of 66,305 cases were registered under the Arms Act 1959.[3] Whether this is a result of the Act, is debatable.

Comparing the situations in countries with strict firearm control laws and those with lax ones might paint a picture about whether strict law is the reason for the small share of firearms as a cause of homicide in India. In the US, where firearm laws are lax, the number of deaths caused by firearms is relatively much higher. In 2017, 19,269 people were victims of homicide, out of which 14,542 were gun-related and the rate of firearm homicide was 4.46 out of 1,00,000 persons.[4]On the other hand, in the UK, where the law regarding firearms is very strict, there were 671 victims of homicide in England and Wales between March 2018 and March 2019, 33 of which were firearm homicides.[5]

The rate of firearm homicide in England and Wales was 0.05 out of 1,00,000 persons. However, in New Zealand, another country with lax firearm laws, in 2016, there were 58 cases of homicide out of which 9 were committed using firearms.[6]The rate of firearm homicide in the country was 0.20 out of 1,00,000 persons in 2016. The crime rate in New Zealand is very low even though the firearm ownership rate is much higher there than in India. Mexico has a very high firearm homicide rate, despite having very strict firearm laws. It is very difficult to determine whether strict firearm control laws help in the reduction of their misuse.

Conclusion

Pro-gun advocates deride the law regarding firearms in India, claiming it to deprive many people of the use and enjoyment of firearms. One of their arguments is that guns will act more as a deterrent to crime rather than as its proponent. The idea is that fear of guns would force people to refrain from committing crimes. That is possible only if people who could misuse firearms do not have access to them. Proponents of gun control, however, argue that fewer guns would mean fewer crimes committed using them. Strict firearms law in India, however, hasn’t resulted in fewer firearms. Therefore, while firearms-related offences are dwarfed by other offences, their number is still high in India. Unless the state can check the circulation of unlicensed firearms in the country, the purpose of the legislation won’t be realised. Thus, on paper, the firearms law may seem fine, but in practice, its effectiveness is questionable.


[1] Karp, Aaron. ‘Civilian Firearms Holdings, 2017.’ Estimating Global Civilian-Held Firearms Numbers. Geneva: Small Arms Survey, the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva. 18 June 2018

[2] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, Crime in India-2018.

[3] Ministry of Home Affairs, National Crime Records Bureau, Crime in India-2018.

[4] Sydney School of Public Health ‘Number of Gun Homicides.’ Definition and Selection Criteria., 17 July 2019, https://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-states

[5] Home Office, Office for National Statistics, Offences involving the use of firearms: year ending March 2019.

[6] New Zealand Police, Police Statistics on Homicide Victims in New Zealand 2007-2016

Amogha Konamme from Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur

You can find him here

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