Prior to the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857 or First war of Independence there were no gun control laws in India. People were free to carry weapons of any caliber (the internal diameter or bore of a gun barrel) with no prior permission for carrying weapons. The First war of Independence was crushed with great efforts needed from the British and the British then decided to turn their attention to governing a vast nation like India, with more regulations on arms and ammunition. Indian soldiers started revolting against the outcome of ‘greased cartridges’ which had catalytic effect on the religious sentiment of both Hindu and Muslim soldiers. The Britishers were under an immense fear that the repetition of rebellions in the future would lead to the end of British Colonial era from India forever. Although the rebellion failed, the illegal and unauthorized use of British weapons such as guns, rifles, etc., by the Indian soldiers let to the introduction of the Arms Act,1878. The act was passed under the tenure of then viceroy Lord Lytton. He appointed a committee which concluded the following-
• The local Indians should have restricted access to arms and weapons. Indians could posses a weapon of any description only when the Crown was satisfied that he was loyal subject of the Crown.
• However, an exception was made in the case of Anglo-Indians and British rulers who were free to own weapons. The gun license was introduced to restrict Indians from owning weapons.
The Indian Arms Act of 1878 was the first gun control law in India. It did seem reasonable on the face of it, but in practice getting an arm license became a tiresome process for an Indian. It was made mandatory by this law for Indian to obtain a license to own a gun. The Act was passed solely to maintain the Crown’s rule in India as the mutiny among the sepoys instilled a fear in the minds of the Britishers. The position of the Arms Act of 1878, remained unobjected to up until 12 years of India gaining independence, when the Arms Act of 1959 was passed.
PRESENT GUN LAWS IN INDIA:
The Arms Act of 1878 was repealed by the Arms Act of 1959. The Act of 1959 was better than the Act enacted by the Britishers and it was also reflective of the Indian Government’s suspicions toward its own citizens. The Act of 1959 is an act of the Parliament of India to consolidate and amend the law relating to arms and ammunition in order to curb illegal weapons and violence stemming from them. The Act of 1959 was amplified by the Arms Rules of 1962 where both the laws completely prohibit the possession, sale, acquisition, manufacture, import, export and transfer of firearms without a valid license, which in itself is a long process and even take years to complete. The Act gave arbitrary use of power to the licensing authority as they could reject any application for gun license without citing relevant reasons for the same. The Act also brought forward the lack of transparency regarding gun laws in India.
The Arms Act in India divides firearms into two categories-
1. Prohibited Bore (PB)
2. Non-Prohibited Bore (NPB)
A bore in simple terms is the thickness/diameter of the bullet i.e. the hole in the middle of a barrel through which a bullet emerges.
Prohibited Bore weapons includes pistols (9 mm) and handguns of calibers .38, .455 and caliber .303 rifles. They also include semi-automatic and fully-automatic guns. Acquiring License for the Prohibited Bore category was nearly impossible for anyone except defence force personnel and family heirlooms. But over the years, especially after the Mumbai Terror Attack of 2008, the Indian Government reformed its gun ownership norms. As a result of which those civilians who are apprehended to their lives or those who reside in terrorist-prone areas, or even government officials who have made themselves targets in front of terrorists by nature of their job, or MLAs or MPs or of citizens associated with anti-terrorist programmes or their family members. However, the issuing of license of prohibited bore weapons only applies to particular kinds of weapons as notified by the Government in the Official Gazette, while other kinds still remain prohibited to civilians.
Non-Prohibited Bore weapons include arms such as- handguns of caliber .35, .32, .22 and .380. all civilians can apply for possession of an non-prohibited bore by the following the due procedure under the Chapter II and Chapter III of the Arms Act 1959. Chapter II of the Act provides for ‘Acquisition, Possession, Manufacture, Sale, Import, Export and Transport of Arms and Ammunition’. Chapter III provides ‘Provisions relating to License.
➢ In the case of Ganesh Chandra Bhatt v. District Magistrate, Almora, Justice Katju held that if an application for a license to bear a non-prohibited weapon is not accepted or rejected in 3 months, the license is deemed to have been granted by the Government since the right to self-defence has been considered to be within the ambit of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.
➢ However, this judgment was passed before the 1993 terror attack in Bombay and since then the judgment has been overruled and as of now the right to bear arms is solely governed by the Arms Act, 1959 and it is not constitutionally protected.
Who Can Grant License:
Before 1987, the license for possession of both of these categories (PB and NPB) could be granted by any state government personnel or any DM ( district magistrate).
After 1987, the granting of licenses for Prohibited Bore became entirely the responsibility of the Central Government.
Procedure to obtain a Firearm License in India:
• A civilian who wishes to obtain a license for a gun need to be minimum 21 years of age. An application form needs to be filled by the applicant mentioning his/her past criminal behaviour. The applicant has to prove imminent threat to his/her life.
• The following documents are required- ID proof, residence proof, age proof, education proof, 4 photographs, last 3 years income tax returns, character certificate after verification from eminent members in the locality, health certificates both mental and physical.
• Police performing applicant’s strict background check for 2 months. Recording the interview of applicant and his family, his neighbours, checking his mental health history, behaviour towards others etc.
• The recorded interviews are sent to Criminal Branch and National Crime Record Bureau for record keeping. After this the licensing authority interviews the applicant and recording the reasons for their approval or refusal of license.
• Applicant whose application is approved must observe mandatory arms handling course whereby they learn safe handling firing and transporting a gun.
• The license granted must be renewed after period of every three months.
• It is mandatory for the owner to carry a gun in a holster or rucksack in case of rifles.
Chapter V of the Arms Act, 1959 provides the provisions for offence and punishment.
Whoever uses firearms for celebratory gunfire purposes or in a rash and negligent manner shall be punished with imprisonment of two years and a fine up to Rs.1 lakh.
The proposed alterations to Arms Act stipulate prison term that can go up to life imprisonment for ownership of weapons looted from military or police, engaged in illegal dealing and rash and careless utilization of guns.
At present, the gun laws in India are one of the most stringent in the world. Despite all these strict laws, all these steps taken to minimise the violence due to arms and ammunition, it can also not be ignored that India still records 2nd highest death due to gun violence. To avoid this, laws should be implemented strictly, faults or loopholes should be recognized in the present system and the origin of illegal weapons should be traced.
This article is written by Tamanna Thakran of Gitarattan International Business School.