There are 393 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States of America. And there are just about 327 million civilians themselves. That’s a problem.
The US has suffered a spate of mass shootings in recent years, including two back-to-back killings earlier this month in Ohio and Texas. Activists have called for tougher gun control measures, but to no avail.
According to the Small Arms Survey 2018, the US accounts for 4 percent of the global population, but an astonishing 46 percent of the world’s entire stock of privately owned small arms.
To put that into perspective, US civilians have more guns than the next 25 countries combined. Out of those, only 1.07 million are legally registered.
In comparison, India has over 71 million firearms, the second-highest in the world. But with a population of more than 1.3 billion, the number of arms per 100 people is 5.3, which is in stark contrast to the US’ 120.5. Almost 10 million guns are registered in India, which is incredibly low, given India’s stringent gun laws.
We took a look at gun control laws and buying procedures in both countries. Which one fares better?
Gun legislation in India
India’s gun control laws are restrictive and among the strictest in the world. The Arms Act, 1959 bans the sale and possession of firearms without a licence. Barring some exceptions – high-ranking government officials, defence officers, and select professional shooters – civilians are only allowed to own small arms that come under the Non-Prohibited Bore (NPB) category. All semi- and fully automatic weapons are included in the Prohibited Bore (PB) category, where licences are even more difficult to obtain and authorised only by the central government. A person cannot have more than three firearms at any time, and licences are valid for only three years.
Only people aged 21 and above are eligible to buy a gun. The laws prohibit gun ownership for civilians sentenced to imprisonment on charges of violence for five years after their sentence has expired, or who have an executed bond for good behaviour.
Guns can only be issued for three purposes: crop protection, self-defence – where evidence is needed to show that the person is under threat – and sports. The documentation required to merely apply for a licence includes two character certificates from members in one’s locality, certificates for physical and mental fitness, a narcotics test, income tax returns for the last three years, and proofs of age, identity, education and residence. The applicant also needs to guarantee that they have a safe place for firearm storage.
The police review the application over the course of at least 60 days, assessing the person’s antecedents, ability to handle firearms, and the threats claimed. It also performs background checks on the applicant’s criminal and mental health history, interviewing them, their families and their neighbours with regard to aggressive behaviour, domestic violence, and so on.
Recently, the government tightened its gun policies, declaring paintball, blank-firing, and air guns weapons that require a permit, as they can be converted into firearms with some machinery work. Taser guns are now also required to have a permit, but it is much easier for women to obtain these lighter guns called Nirbheek, following the infamous Nirbhaya case in New Delhi in 2012.
The Centre also requires potential gun owners to undertake a mandatory course for arms handling, which includes safe transportation, handling and storage, as well as training on firing a gun correctly.
Taking all this into account, it takes months – even years – to obtain small arms in India. Chandrashekhar Singh, a gun owner from Rajasthan, says it took a-year-and-a-half for him to get a licence. “I got my gun with great difficulty. I had to convince the authorities why I needed one for self-protection, since I did film shoots in dangerous, remote areas in Rajasthan and Gujarat.”
Even then, weapons can be confiscated by the government at any time, says Jagmeet Singh Randhawa, a criminal lawyer. Weapons also need to be surrendered to the nearest police station during elections to ensure peaceful voting (they are returned within a week after the results).
And still, about 86 percent of civilian arms in India are illegal.
Randhawa says it’s because the illicit arms industry is concentrated “within two or three states”, particularly Uttar Pradesh, which is notorious for being the nation’s hub for illegal guns. “Dealers are hand-in-glove with local governments. If they don’t take action against the manufacturing units, then that’s on them,” he adds.
Gun legislation in the US
Gun laws in the US are much more complicated, scattered across states that regulate laws individually. And, almost in antithesis to India, buying a gun in the United States is incredibly quick and convenient.
While firearms in India can only be legally bought from licensed dealers obtaining them from the Indian Ordnance Factory, licit guns in the US are sold at big chains like Walmart, liquor and sporting stores, gun shows, neighbours, and even online. It’s dangerously easy.
Gun legislation in the US is regulated by the Gun Control Act of 1968. It states 18 as the minimum age for owning shotguns and rifles, and 21 for all other firearms. It also prohibits firearm sales to fugitives, drug addicts, mentally unfit people, and those who have been convicted or indicted for “a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year”. All applications must be approved or rejected within a period of 45 days.
In theory, all that an applicant needs to do is fill the registration form, go through a background check that lasts minutes, and walk out of the store as a gun owner.
The application form itself asks the person basic personal details, including ethnicity and race. Though their immigration status is required, entering in one’s Social Security Number is, absurdly, optional (though the form does acknowledge it “will help prevent misidentification”). Go figure.
This follows questions about drug addiction and mental health, with no way to verify the answers. The last few questions ask the applicants whether they have ever been dishonourably discharged from the military, if they are subject to a restraining order due to child or spousal abuse, and whether they are – and this is a poor choice of words – “an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States”. (The form refers to tourists, foreign students, and foreign workers, as ‘non-immigrant aliens’)
On completion, the dealer enters the applicant’s information into the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to check their eligibility. It uses FBI-run databases to check one’s criminal records, and does it within a few minutes. The NICS has rejected less than 2 percent of requests since its implementation in 1998.
That’s it. No training, no verification of mental or physical health, no interviews, no police interaction. You’ve bought a gun.
But here’s the kicker: gun buyers are not required to go through even a background check in private firearm sales. So, if you’re at one of the many gun shows in the States, or surfing gun websites, you can virtually buy a gun by merely filling a quick form. During the Obama administration, a Democrat-backed bill that aimed at eliminating this loophole and expand background checks was rejected by Congress.
Randhawa feels that American procedures must be more restrictive, saying, “People should only be given guns if they have a proven need for them, and only a particular authority should authorise the licence.”
Asked whether mass shootings are a result of mental illnesses or loose gun legislation, Randhawa raises an interesting point. “If the shooter is white, it’s a mental health issue. If they’re not, aren’t they branded as terrorists?” According to a 2019 Mother Jones report, 55 percent of mass shooters in the US since 1982 were white.
Singh believes the US should learn from Indian bureaucrats to tighten their gun laws. He compares the licensing process to US visa applications, explaining that the latter essentially is a more in-depth procedure.It is easier to get a gun than an entry into the US.