Because Guns Kill
Guns Do Kill, Wound and Maim
In the violence that took place in Delhi in February 2020, it was striking that so many civilians seemed to have easy access to guns. How many of these guns were licensed, and where were people acquiring them? Was there no supervision or regulation? A petition raised these questions but as the COVID-19 pandemic crisis took over our mind space and disrupted our routines, it has been a non-starter and these questions remain unaddressed.
Guns are a much-overlooked part of the peace and disarmament agenda, which, we tend to associate mainly with large military equipment and warheads. Small arms and light weapons (SALW) have always been integral to this agenda, however.
A 2005 UN Instrument defines small arms and light weapons thus: “small arms and light weapons” will mean any man-portable lethal weapon that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique small arms and light weapons or their replicas. They clarified that “small arms” are generally weapons designed for individual use such as revolvers and pistols while “light weapons” are weapons designed for use by two or three persons serving as a crew such as heavy machine guns.
The USA, enshrining ‘the right to bear arms’ in its Constitution, is notorious for widespread gun ownership. In the last two decades, multiple episodes of shootings in schools and public spaces have underscored that reputation. While activists campaign for the regulation of gun ownership, the counter-argument is that guns don’t kill, people do.
However, we know that guns—easy access to small arms and to ammunition—directly affect the levels of violence in a society. Amnesty International frames it as a human rights issue, threatening the most fundamental of human rights: the right to life.
Gun violence has both a direct and indirect impact on people. Death and injuries, including those causing lifelong disability, are the most obvious direct impact, and the same Amnesty International page estimates that more than 500 people die every day due to gun violence (no provenance for the statistic). The other reality is that where firearms are accessible, domestic violence, intimate partner violence and sexual violence levels escalate quickly. Thus, gun violence is also gendered violence.
“Weapons also have differentiated impacts on women and men, girls and boys. In 2016, men and boys accounted for 84 per cent of violent deaths, including homicides and armed conflict. Women, however, are more frequently the victims of gender-based violence facilitated by small arms, including domestic violence and sexual violence. Women can also bear indirect impacts of armed violence, including psychological and economic burdens. In many situations, when men are killed or injured, women must take on new or additional roles as income providers, often leading to impoverishment, exploitation and discrimination.”
(Securing our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament, 2018, page 39)
The indirect impact of gun violence is an abiding fear because of which people feel their choices and autonomy are limited. Whether it is acquiescence within an abusive relationship, or choosing not to go to school or college, or avoiding certain workplaces, the proliferation of small arms within a society alters daily life profoundly. The tertiary impact of this is felt in the politics of the state, not just through increased use of coercive mechanisms in elections and everyday politics, but also in the self-censorship and self-regulation of citizens and civil society. Small conflicts escalate quickly when everyone has guns. The descent from disagreement to civil war or riots can be swift and precipitous.
The proliferation of small arms and light weapons thus has both personal and political consequences that are profound and also apparently, irreversible in the short to intermediate term.
Governments agree that these weapons, described by the UN Secretary-General in his latest report to the General Assembly as a “key driver of human suffering,” must not be a freely available commodity. International regimes and national laws around guns focus on regulating who can buy them, why, branding and registering them. The obvious shortcoming of this approach is that it cannot address the illegal manufacture and sale of weapons.
Most of the guns used in the February 2020 riots in Delhi appear to be country-made, illegal guns, shipped over the state border and sold or distributed. Will any government show the will to crack down on this trade? Whoever does so, will have to take on board both the political consequences as well as the local political economic impact of these actions. For the moment, it is hard to assess whether that political will exists.
Vijay Murty, From small arms to AK-47s, this Munger village is India’s ‘biggest illegal firearms hub,’ Hindustan Times, November 13, 2018.
AFP News, Homegrown illegal weapons fuel Indian gun culture, November 5, 2012. (Video)
Why Guns are a Feminist Issue
The simplest connection between women and gun policy lies in the maternal politics of gun control campaigns. Women in communities around the world have responded and mobilised as mothers to shooting incidents. The other side of this is the marketing of guns as a way for women to defend themselves. For instance, in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi gang-rape, an Indian ordnance factory marketed Nirbheek as a gun for women, “an ideal to fit a purse or a small hand bag.”
What we do know is that when guns proliferate levels of violence escalate in society. Jasmin Nario-Galace writes that while men mostly own, use and trade in guns and while they make up the majority of gun deaths and injuries, women are affected in invisible ways: from rape, intimidation and domestic violence to sexual violence in conflict.
The connection between guns and sexual and gender-based violence is now well-established. It is most evident in societies which have experienced civil war, with most men and boys, and occasionally women, recruited as fighters and trained in the use of guns. Some of the guns find their way out of battle-zones and into homes. Given that disarmament may not keep up with demobilisation, it is likely that some fighters retain their war tools which come in handy for everyday intimidation and bullying, and for those brutalised and traumatised by their fighting experience, an easy vocabulary to express frustration and anger. The sense of entitlement that patriarchy and militarisation endorse would appear to justify the use of guns and other small arms to enforce one’s will—within a household, sexually or in the community.
Escalating levels of violence in a society that take the lives of men, leave women widowed and responsible for their families. Patriarchal societies raise girls to be wives, dependent on the men through their lives (father, husband, son in Manu’s infamous formulation). They are rarely given access to livelihood skills or to capital, often lacking inheritance rights. When the male head of household is abruptly killed or the son who was supposed to be their supporter later in life disappears, the women in the household have to rally and look after their families and homes as best they can. In many societies, this also involves defying the stigma attached to widowhood. This is the situation that organisations like Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network seek to address. The immediate solution is helping women build livelihoods, but the advocacy objective is to stop the rule of guns in Manipur.
The easy access to small arms and light weapons creates a climate of intimidation and impunity. Anyone in possession of arms feels free to accost, abduct, extort and abuse, confident that they will not be brought to justice. Apart from death and sexual and gender-based violence, this has resulted in the peculiar practice of enforced disappearances. The emergence of ‘to disappear’ as a transitive verb illustrates how this is now an accepted political means—to abduct and conceal or kill a person illegally if they represent threat or dissent. In conflict-torn or politically polarised societies, the proliferation of para-military or private security forces carrying small guns represent the prospect of disappearing if you ask too many questions.
More men than women are disappeared so the search for missing relatives becomes part of the daily burden of mothers, wives, daughters and partners. Associations to search for the disappeared are often formed by them. They approach the authorities seeking information about missing relatives, even as they try to pick up the pieces, providing for the rest of the family. After a few years of searching, it also becomes imperative to claim access to bank accounts, property papers, etc. and there may be legal and bureaucratic hurdles to doing this. In Kashmir, women in this position—their husbands neither alive and with them nor definitely known to be dead—are termed ‘half-widows,’ evocative of their indeterminate fate. Guns do not cause disappearance but a culture of gun violence enables disappearance to be a solution to political disputes.
Where guns resolve conflict, they also decimate democracy, which may also be defined as a peaceful means of conflict resolution, allowing free and non-violent debate over alternative value systems, allocation of resources and preferences, and organically facilitating something close to a win-win solution. Easy access to guns makes a swift and decisive end to any differences tempting, as communal riots and civil wars illustrate—just pick up a weapon and eliminate the other side. When guns take the place of Parliamentary debates and election speeches (or the latter exhort people to use guns), politics becomes the preserve of those who hold, own and trade in guns—mostly, as we have seen, men.
When this happens, women are edged out of the political sphere, one gunfire incident at a time. Political gatherings are deemed to unsafe—both for the cross-fire and the possibility of sexual violence at gun-point. Elections are deemed too violent—can you really send women candidates into the fray when gun-carrying political workers capture booths and raid rallies? Dissenters are shot down at point-blank range—witness Gauri Lankesh. Others are threatened with rape and threat on social platforms, threats that the possession of guns and the silence of power-holders make realistic.
A WILPF case study on Sweden’s arms sales and their feminist foreign policy points out that India deploys these weapons in militarised regions like Jammu and Kashmir and north-east India. It quoted the 2014 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, which listed three sets of consequences for women: sexual and gender-based violence in conflict; trauma and psychological disorders; and finally, curbs on freedoms of expression, association, movement and assembly.
Guns threaten women’s bodies, their lives and livelihoods and ultimately, strip them of political voice—even more so for gender and sexual minorities. Therefore, around the world, the regulation (and elimination) of small arms and light weapons and gun violence are feminist issues. It’s really quite simple.
Reaching Critical Will, Bringing feminist perspectives to disarmament. (Curated resources)
UN Security Council, Small arms and light weapons – Report of the Secretary-General (S/2019/1011), December 30, 2019.
Ray Acheson, The gender and weapons nexus recognized; feminism need apply in 2019 and beyond, Forum on the Arms Trade, December 19, 2018.
IANSA Women’s Network, Small Arms, Big Harms: A Call to Action by Civil Society On Gender and Small Arms Control, 2018.
UN Office for Disarmament Affairs, Securing Our Common Future: An Agenda for Disarmament, New York, 2018.
Women Peacemakers Program, Gender and Militarism: Analyzing the Links to Strategize for Peace, Action Pack, May 24, 2014.
Swarna Rajagopalan, Why women campaign against guns, DNA India, January 24, 2014.
India, Disarmament and Small Arms
In 2001, the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects adopted a Programme of Action, and agreed to convene a biennial meeting to assess progress on its implementation. This year, the Seventh Biennial Meeting of States on the Programme of Action was scheduled to be held in June 2020, but has been postponed until 2021.
Before every meeting, member-states are asked to submit progress reports. India has not submitted its 2020 report as yet; it has so far submitted nine. The reports clarify the office that is appointed to liaison with the United Nations (located in the Ministry of External Affairs with an Inter-Ministerial Task Force that includes other key players. They identify the laws and regulations that govern small arms and light weapons—the Arms Act (1959) and Arms Rules (1962), as amended over time, plus a host of anti-terror laws. The reports also lay out the various ways in which the government tracks small arms produced in India. Until 2012, the reports are in a narrative form which allow the government to frame its responses politically. There is stock text that recurs with minor variations and updated numbers. After that, the form is really technical and there is little extra.
In the first five reports, the Government of India more or less starts the narrative section every time by connecting illicit weapons to terror groups, with these elements being repeated:
“the illicit trade in SALW is closely linked with terrorism, illicit drug trafficking, money laundering and other trans-national organised crimes;” (2003: para 37)
“India continues to face the challenge of proliferation of illicit SALW which are smuggled into the country by various anti-national groups. The seizures of illicit SALW, by security forces, from terrorists provide an indicative assessment of the problem they pose… This continues to pose a significant challenge to the Government.” (2008, page 5) This is usually accompanied by a mention of the number of seizures in Jammu and Kashmir and north-east India of weapons with markings that indicate foreign origin.
The earlier reports list proscribed organisations associated with the illicit arms market.
All the reports mention country-made weapons (“A small amount of crude “country-made” weapons are also found to be produced clandestinely in India,” is repeated almost verbatim in the early reports) but mainly to affirm that the guidelines on dismantling them are followed by local police.
The 2008 report states on page 7: “India has been a victim of cross-border terrorism for over two decades. India unequivocally condemns terrorism in all its forms and manifestations and strongly believes that there can be no justification, whatsoever, for any act of terrorism. The international community must have a policy of zero tolerance on terrorism and make further concerted efforts to fight this scourge. We must ensure that the issue is not obfuscated by efforts of some to veer the discussion towards so called “root causes of terrorism”.
The government’s repeated association of small arms and light weapons primarily with terror groups sounds polemical. Even if it were grounded in reality, the repetition of this point in more or less the same words suggests that this report offered the Ministry of External Affairs another platform to state its case on the terrorism threat India perceived. The real question here is, feeling the need to stress this point, are these reports too dismissive of the problem of country-made weapons and the illegal internal arms market? Given the changes in Indian society and politics in the last twenty years, should the government have paid more attention to these? Does the location of the ‘focal point’ on small arms and light weapons in the Ministry of External Affairs rather than Home Affairs predispose the report-writers to focus on one side of the problem rather than the other?
Even journalists who write about security do not pay much attention to small arms and light weapons, and the very few who have expertise in this area, do not get as much column space. The result is that these weapons whose manufacture, trade and ownership seem to have increased, do not get much attention. Even when they are used in a caste killing or a communal riot, we are so focused on the ‘who started the fight’ question and on apportioning blame, that we forget to also ask where people got these weapons, and whether they are now too easy to obtain. We do not ask enough why our mutual relationships have deteriorated to the point where gunfire is the only language we share—but that is a post for another day.
India has faithfully shown up to peace and disarmament fora at the United Nations from the very beginning but there is a difference between rhetorical allegiance to norms and actual belief in them, and in India’s case, this gulf may have been widening—both at the governmental level and at the popular. Indians do not seem any more to value attributes like ‘peace-loving,’ preferring to be seen as assertive and aggressive, as signalled by toting guns. This transformation cannot bode well for a society that is hierarchical, where affluence and deprivation are neighbours and where diversity is now marked as irreconcilable difference.
Access India’s reports here, search for ‘All years’ and ‘India.’
Guns versus butter/ life/ peace
India claims to have the some of the strictest laws in the world. However, gunpolicy.org which compiles statistics on gun ownership, use and trade from official documents, estimates that there were 71,101,000 privately (that is, civilian) owned guns in India in 2017. 3,369,444 of these owners were licensed. Although unregistered and illegally held weapons cannot be counted accurately, the website lists an estimated 61,401,000 in 2017. That means about 85% of privately held guns must be illegal. Country-made guns are much cheaper and easy to obtain. For the same reasons, they are harder to track. While the same resource shows that gun homicides have come down over the decades, we should still be worried about the number of illicit guns and unlicensed gun owners in India.
Twenty years ago, everyone was writing about porous boundaries and flows of information, money, drugs and weapons. States have experimented with ways to stop the flow of information and money, and have fought extensive wars to stop the flow of drugs. But what the Delhi riots showed (and other events) is that it is imperative that we track and regulate—if we cannot ban—the purchase and use of small arms. If there is political will—and that is a big if, when you consider the close nexus these days between muscle power (or gun power) and political power these days—we would really invest in figuring this one out.
Why has civil society, with the exception of a few specialist organisations like Control Arms Foundation of India, not paid attention to this issue? In some measure, it is because we tend to assume that this is a technical issue and best left to weapons and security experts. It is also because where we are concerned with violence, we are primarily concerned with the human values, attitudes and behaviours that motivate the violence. However, just as we have sought to ban the sale of acid, we must also make it well-nigh impossible for people to obtain guns and ammunition. Whatever motivates their violence, let them not find these instruments easily.
We start studying economics with Paul Samuelson’s ‘guns versus butter’ example but in reality, our choices are even more fundamental—it’s guns versus someone’s life, versus sustained development in an area, versus peace. Stephen Spender’s poem, “Ultima Ratio Regum” describes a young boy accidentally shot—a life wasted, wantonly. That boy is not alone. Children in schools, people at prayer, shoppers in a hurry, families huddled in fear—bullets waste many lives. We must stop them.