Vikramjit Singh stands in the parking lot of a posh club in Chandigarh discussing one of his favorite subjects: guns. He owns 10 or so; he can’t remember exactly. They may come in handy if the old family feud resurfaces.
In a Hatfield-versus-McCoy saga that haunts the 25-year-old student, his grandfather was shot to death here in the western state of Punjab and his father imprisoned for a retaliatory murder. Although the two clans signed a truce a few years back, Singh isn’t taking any chances.
“Having a gun 24/7 is a necessity,” he says. “You don’t know if their relatives will crop up again. And an expensive weapon is a status symbol. You can’t flash just any old gun around.”
India, the land of Mohandas Gandhi, known for its Hindu belief in the sanctity of life, is anything but gun-shy. Rising incomes have made high-end weapons a new form of bling, and rising crime and memories of Mumbai’s 2008 terrorist attack have left Indians eager to be armed and dangerous.
Government worker Deep Sidhu sits in his living room feeling the weight of the family’s Luger, a German World War II-era pistol, in his hands. Guns are in the blood, he says beneath a painting of a man toting a shotgun.
“This forgiveness-peace idea will only make Pakistanis think we’re soft targets,” he says.
“All that Gandhi stuff is for tourists,” adds his father, Raja K.S. Sidhu. “They should go off to Varanasi, see the holy cows.”
Despite tough controls on weapons, Indians own about 40 million guns, the second-highest number in the world. Of those, 85% are unregistered Saturday-night specials involved in 90% of firearm homicides. That said, there are only 3 guns for every 100 people in India, compared with 89 guns per 100 Americans, the world leaders, according to gunpolicy.org.
India recorded 80,000 violations of its Arms Act in 2009, involving owning, making and transporting illegal weapons, an 8% increase from 2007, according to India’s National Crimes Records Bureau. Despite the increase, most homicides here still involve knives, machetes and other weapons, with guns accounting for just 14% of killings.
India also remains a far less violent society than the U.S., at 2.78 homicides per 100,000 people, compared with 4.96 Americans per 100,000. Indian gun lovers remain convinced, however, that the country needs more firearms given its low police-to-population ratio, among the world’s worst.
As gun culture spreads, local governments have offered to fast-track firearms licenses if men have vasectomies. Families include firearms in dowries. And authorities have discouraged celebratory gunfire at weddings after several accidents, including the recent death of a bridegroom when his uncle’s revelry shots went terribly wrong.
Newspaper headlines detail numerous fatalities, many involving petty disputes: a toll collector killed with a homemade “country pistol,” India’s term for a Saturday-night special, over 50 cents; a 22-year-old man shot dead after a fight about urinating; a twentysomething man killed after jostling in line for water dispensed from a truck. On Jan. 28, five people were killed in election-related violence in the northeastern state of Manipur after the shooting deaths of at least two a day earlier.
“Are we not paying for the rising gun violence in India?” asks antigun activist Binalakshmi Nepram, secretary-general of Control Arms Foundation of India. “It is a wrong perception that one needs a gun for security.”
In an attempt to curtail the violence, New Delhi recently started rigidly enforcing its already tough gun licensing rules, which had been easy to bypass through bribes or personal connections. The rules include police checks, strict limits on ammunition and a need to prove that one’s life is endangered.
Security guard Kuldeep Kumar, 30, lounges in front of an HDFC Bank branch with his far-from-new 12-gauge shotgun. Obtaining a license took ages and heaps of red tape, he says, proudly showing the thick booklet with multiple approval stamps and detailed rules.
The rules punish law-abiding citizens and encourage unlicensed ownership, gun lovers say. They also have Jugraj Singh, owner of Chandigarh’s Singh Gun House, looking for another line of work. “Business used to be a lot better,” he says beside 25 rifles and shotguns in a dusty rack.
Tighter regulations also prompted gun owners to found the 3,500-member National Assn. for Gun Rights India in 2010, modeled on America’s National Rifle Assn., which lobbies the government to ease restrictions.
“Guns boost an individual’s confidence,” says a video by the group, titled “Guns For Peace.” “Guns are force equalizers.”
Rakshit Sharma, the group’s secretary-general, says the Mumbai attack would have been cut short if Taj Mahal hotel guests had been carrying firearms. “The government has a very antiarms view,” he says.
Even as the government tightens legal gun use, illegal firearms are proliferating, particularly in Jharkhand state, where Maoist guerrillas are waging a war against the government, and the populous northern states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.
An illegal gun maker of 15 years from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh who identifies himself as Atul says it’s easy money. “We buy some carbon steel,” he says. “It takes three or four days to make one.”
Prices range from $20 for a single-shot “country gun” to $1,000 for a proper pistol, he says. Demand has been strong in the run-up to this month’s Uttar Pradesh election. “The illegal market is flourishing,” he says. “Legal weapons are too cumbersome, and expensive.”
The tradition among landowner families of passing shotguns down to their offspring after years of training has become twisted, some say, by quick money and a showoff culture that’s seen youngsters competing over who can wave about the nicest $10,000 pistol.
At street gatherings in downtown Chandigarh and other wealthy cities, teenagers and twentysomethings compete over who’s got the best gun as police look the other way, wary of offending offspring of powerful families, people say.
Head-turners include the Russian-made 7.62 Tokarev pistol and its Chinese knockoff selling for as much as $12,000 and the American Colt .45 pistol at $6,000 to $8,000, in addition to Italian-made weapons. Domestic guns are distinctly declasse, seen as low-quality and unreliable, which aficionados say is a legacy of India’s protected markets and focus on nonviolence.
“People are richer, gain access to expensive weapons, which enhances their image,” says Sidhu, the government worker. “Despite regulations, you can’t stop a Punjabi from loving guns.”
Many people dismiss fear that India could turn into the Wild West, but some Indians display a certain amount of Wild Bill Hickok.
Bank manager Jagdeep Singh likes to tuck his licensed pistol under his shirt on car trips over lonely roads, having used it successfully in the early 1990s to fight off several attackers.
“I have two good-looking daughters,” he says, “another reason I keep a gun.”
Tanvi Sharma of The Times’ New Delhi bureau contributed to this report.