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Opinion

May 24, 2018

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Challenging the gun culture

The tragic death of 17-year-old Sabika Sheikh, during what should have been a 10-month-long academic term at a US high school in Texas as an exchange student, has in one way or the other shaken all of us.

For many, the idea that a vivacious, talented young girl who had won the US State Department’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange Scholarship to study at a Texas school will now never return home, is disturbing on so many levels. Sabika had gone to the US as a youth ambassador for her country. She had, according to all accounts, represented Pakistan superbly during her time at the Santa Fe High School, which was cut short by the shooting spree carried out by a fellow student.

School shootings in the US have pricked people’s conscience since the Columbine massacre in 1999 when 13 people were gunned down at a high school in Colorado by two pupils who had carefully plotted and planned their death. Both are now behind bars and their parole is due soon. Since then, a large number of school shootings have followed.

In 2018 alone, there have been at least 20 incidents of this nature. Around 35 people – students and teachers – have lost their lives while many others have been injured. The lax gun controls in the US have been repeatedly blamed for these attacks. But no action has been taken with America’s powerful gun lobby that is making full use of a highly controversial constitutional provision, which permits every US citizen to carry a firearm.

Texas, where Sabika died, is one of the states with the most relaxed laws on the purchase and ownership of firearms. A telling video posted on social media soon after a shooting incident in Florida earlier this year demonstrates that it is possible for a 14-year-old in the US to be denied access to alcohol, cigarettes, clubs and prescription drugs, but he or she can easily buy an automatic gun.

There is clearly something wrong with this logic. Pakistan’s own gun laws are much tighter than those in the US. The problem is with implementation. According to a global survey carried out in 2007 by an organisation that monitors firearms in societies, there are 20 million privately-owned firearms in Pakistan, with the ratio standing at 11:6 per 100 persons. The survey doesn’t take into account weapons such as larger automatic guns, including Kalashnikovs, that have become so familiar in our society. Pakistan ranks sixth on the list of 178 countries on the basis of the number of guns owned by the people.

Pakistan has mercifully never suffered the kind of school shootings witnessed in the US. Yes, the attack on the Army Public School in 2014 can be likened with these incidents. But this massacre involved trained terrorists rather than schoolboys who had for often obscure reasons decided to shoot their peers and teachers. Easy access to guns has undoubtedly facilitated them.

Despite the tighter controls on gun possession that exist on paper in Pakistan, firearms are easily accessible in the country. Teenage boys have been known to smuggle guns into schools and show them off to their peers. Are we then far from a situation where a disturbed teenager goes on a rampage within a school – that too in this age of globalisation where the US has become the model for much of what young people do in terms of social and recreational activities? A drug culture has already evolved in all our major cities and has taken young students into its fold. We must pray that Pakistan never witnesses a shooting at a school that mirrors those carried out in the US.

We must, however, also do more than pray. Over the past few years, we have seen influential young men use guns to kill their victims over petty issues. Shahzeb Khan, the son of a senior police officer, was killed in Karachi in 2012 by two young men from highly influential backgrounds. The killers were granted bail last year.

In March 2018, Asma Rani, a medical student from Islamabad, was gunned down by an influential man who had stalked her for months and expressed an interest in marrying her. She had turned him down repeatedly. The eventual fate of the killer remains undetermined. Political and social influence frequently plays a part in meting out punishments – or, perhaps, failing to do so.

Although Karachi – which was once rated as the sixth most dangerous city in the world on the basis of murder and other crimes committed within it – has been able to drastically improve its position over the past three years, the fact remains that the number of guns circulating through our society poses a threat to everyone. They come to the aid of extremists, criminals, and others. Apart from the murders that are committed by young men who believe that they may be immune from justice, we have also had gunfights between school students from privileged schools in both Lahore and Islamabad.

There is an urgent need to remove illegal firearms from the hands of people. Efforts to do so in the past have consistently failed. As always, we have not been successful in enforcing policies that are agreed upon at the highest levels. It is worth noting that the safest countries in the world – including Finland, Iceland and the UAE – have enforced tight checks on the ownership of weapons and their display in public places.

We need to think about the dangers that guns pose to us. There have been terrible cases – which have mainly been reported from the gun-happy US – where children have accidentally shot parents or siblings using guns that were left within their reach. These, of course, are tragedies – as are the shooting incidents at schools. But they could be prevented by simply preventing easy access to guns.

The same rule applies to Pakistan. Our culture of intolerance and the acceptance of extreme violence means that the presence of firearms poses grave dangers. Young people, as part of a new ‘gangland’ style culture that has developed among men in many urban centres, are known to gather in a ritualistic fashion to battle out disputes over trivial matters such as associating with a member of the opposite sex and committing petty theft. In most cases, fists or words are used to settle disputes. But will there come a time when someone will opt for a gun instead?

Our young people are at risk. While a few schools have banned toy guns on their premises and discouraged parents from buying these items for their children, a very large number of children – some no more than toddlers – own toy guns. Some of these toys are accompanied by camouflage uniforms, tanks, missiles or other weapons. Parents like to post pictures of their sons dressed in this fashion on social media. This culture is likely to have damaging effects. It promotes an acceptance of violence and promotes the notion that guns are acceptable objects for young people.

Our bazaars are packed with toy AK-47s, Kalashnikovs, pistols and other guns. We need to change this culture. Removing unlicensed guns from people’s possession will serve as the first step in this direction. We don’t want shooting incidents in Pakistan where young people like Sabika, who have their entire lives ahead of them, are killed.

The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.

Email: [email protected]

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