Padma Rao Sundarji | It’s possible to control gun violence, even eradicate it
Attacks have certainly been on the rise across Europe
To writer Isaac Asimov, violence was “the refuge of the incompetent”. But 9/11 changed all that. The murderous operation which killed nearly 3,000 people was anything but “incompetent”; it was ruthlessly planned and executed.
Much changed in Asimov’s America and elsewhere in the West. Violence began to be seen as the refuge of the -- primarily -- Islamic fanatic.
Draconian security measures kicked in. Europe was less successful in preventing Islamist terror, but there has been no repeat of the terrorist carnage in the United States since 2001.
But for that, the US has earned a different notoriety -- of unabated gun violence. The strong pro-gun lobby continues to oppose any new restrictions. Annual gun violence statistics have steadfastly worsened. A 2020 study carried out by the Atlanta-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) registered more killings by guns in the US in that year than any other. A total of 45,222 persons died in gun murders, suicides and also unintentional shootings, police firings and under other circumstances. The study established that gun violence in the US had seen a 75 per cent increase over the decade gone by.
According to US website Gun Violence Archive, 513 persons died of “mass shootings” (acts of violence in which four or more are shot at) in 2020 alone. In 2023, little has changed. There are reports of shootouts somewhere in the US almost every day. Changes in gun legislation continue to be hotly debated. But the US death rate by guns remains far higher than in most other developed countries.
So, what’s it like in European nations like Germany, which is in the international headlines for last week’s mass shooting in which six people including a pregnant mother were killed?
In February 2020, a right-wing fanatic had sprayed bullets on German Turks, before shooting himself and his mother. The murderer had earlier posted racist comments online. A year earlier, a shooter had opened fire outside a synagogue in Germany’s Halle. In 2016, a Tunisian supporter of ISIS ran a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people.
Attacks have certainly been on the rise across Europe. But most were perpetrated either by far-right white supremacists or fanatic Islamists. Compared to the US, gun violence stemming from enmity or mental illness has been relatively rare.
This is why the mass shooting in the affluent and peaceful German port city of Hamburg shook the world. Philip G, the shooter, fired more than 50 shots at followers of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a relatively small Christian sect. There was no white supremacist or Islamist motive. There were no calls claiming responsibility, no threatening notes, none of the usual boastful and dastardly hallmarks of terrorism. Subsequent investigation revealed that the police had, indeed, got an anonymous letter warning them of Philip G’s hatred towards the sect he had himself once belonged to. A team was sent to the shooter’s house to interrogate him, but the officers say they found no incriminating hints of his impending crime and -- tragically -- let him off their watch list.
Last week’s shooting in Hamburg cannot be attributed to laxity in gun control either. There are five million firearms in circulation among roughly one million persons among Germany’s population of 84 million. Acquiring a gun requires lengthy bureaucratic procedures; weapons are mostly granted to sports shooters, hunters or others involved in certain branches of forestry. Of late, Berlin has been considering a further tightening of its gun laws to make it harder for extremists to acquire weapons. The authorities also want to make mental health checks mandatory for those who are given gun licences.
But as the inability of the Hamburg police to prevent Philip G from unleashing carnage proved, mental illness is not that easy to diagnose, even for health experts. They say there is also no established protocol in place to recognise whether such an illness may lead a person to commit murderous acts.
“Let’s say I already own a gun and then hit a personal crisis -- my livelihood gets taken away and I start developing violent fantasies: I want to avenge myself on society, and I want to go out and kill everyone I see,” a professor of forensic psychology told the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. “No health authority would know about that”.
The German authorities are therefore looking at the possibility of putting gun applicants through a series of psychological assessment tests, but sports professionals wonder just how efficient such tests and their interpretation could be.
What about India?
India’s Arms Act came into existence 64 years ago, and was amended in 2019 to include sports professionals among those who can apply for a weapons licence. Killings with “country-made” weapons have remained in the news since 1959. But along with growing affluence, shootouts with sophisticated guns are on the rise too. One of the most prominent cases of gun violence was the killing of Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moosewala last year. During the attack, he was fired upon by members of a gang and had also fired back. None of the men involved had any professional sports background.
Moosewala’s killing brought the focus back on India’s gun laws. The Arms Act lays down a list of conditions, including age and mental health, for acquiring a weapon. It also stipulates that weapons can be bought from authorised and licensed arms dealers alone. There are about 100 legal gun manufacturing units across the length and breadth of India. But therein lies the catch.
Lax implementation and monitoring, especially in remote, far-flung areas, have led to the mushrooming of illegal gun factories across the country. These “factories” even rip off Western models like Heckler & Koch and Beretta and sell them cheaply.
As with all else, jugaad is both our strength, but also a weakness with dangerous and reckless implications.
From Mahatma Gandhi to Martin Luther King Jr, from Nelson Mandela to the Dalai Lama: great men and women have preached non-violence for centuries. But like many other dark aspects of human psychology, violence will always remain mankind’s fault line, its tragic flaw.
Germany and India are both democracies where constitutionally-guaranteed “individual freedom” often hinders authorities from uncompromising and immediate intervention. However, stringent, relentless monitoring, the introduction of draconian punishments for violators, and the implementation of zero-tolerance policies towards weapons in the hands of anyone other than the national security agencies, could make a considerable difference and prevent the recurrence of tragedies like the one in Hamburg last week.