Saturday June 10, 2023

A tragedy in waiting

May 29, 2018

Five months into 2018 and the US has already experienced 23 school shootings, averaging a little over one school shooting per week. While the children in the US have shown great courage and conviction in raising their voice, their government, on the contrary, has shown little interest in tightening gun control laws.

When it comes to guns, gun control and gun-related deaths, there is little difference in the attitudes of both the US and Pakistani governments. For once they are on the same page. Volumes of speeches, statements, cliches, plans and promises are delivered with passionate oratory after each school shooting or mass killing, but little is done to eliminate or control weapons – the killing machines that initiate all violence.

However, the pattern of violence in Pakistan is far more complex. Here exist thousands of private militias that are patronised by a political and feudal class. The country has scores of ‘lashkars’ (the likes of Rajanpur’s ‘Chotoo’ gang) which are often more powerful than the provincial police. Ideologically, Pakistan has inspired hoodlums such as those who blocked Islamabad.

The country has religiously charged mobsters such as those who destroyed the Ahmadis’ place of worship in Sialkot last week, or those who have killed hundreds of Hazaras in Quetta. Needless to say, the country also has heavily armed groups such as the TTP, which did not think twice when it came to killing 132 schoolchildren.

Considering that Pakistan is faced with a complex and multi-dimensional threat of gun-related violence, how does the state proactively prepare itself to protect its citizens and children from catastrophic occurrences? Sadly, many of the actions taken by the state can multiply instead of reduce the existing level of violence.

For example, the Sindh government in an explosive act of generosity, only a few days before the expiry of its term, decided to amend the Arms Act by removing the restriction of a citizen possessing more than four guns. So the people in Sindh are now free to possess as many weapons as they wish – a huge incentive for creating yet more unlawful ‘lashkars’ and private armies in the province.

In December 2017 the federal government announced two schemes to regulate (read: propagate) gun licences. The centre lifted the restriction on obtaining gun licences for non-prohibited weapons. However, the government further declared that licences of all ‘prohibited bore’ guns would be cancelled after January 31, 2018.

The owners were required to either downgrade or surrender their prohibited weapons and receive Rs50,000 in compensation for each surrendered weapon. Interestingly, there was no mention of those who possessed unlicensed weapons. Thus, the government did not address the largest and the most sinister aspect of the problem.

It is a well-known fact that gun licences in Pakistan are issued entirely on the basis of an individual’s status, power, party, influence or wealth. No tests, trainings or background checks are conducted. By the government’s own admission, almost half of its gun-licence records are either fake or missing. In the absence of any reliable data, the government was hugely embarrassed when the January 31 deadline passed without a single individual downgrading or surrendering any prohibited bore weapon. The government conveniently decided to look the other way – and is yet to broach the subject again.

Pakistan can learn from the experience of several nations like Australia, Japan, Norway and the UK, which have successfully reduced or eliminated the possession of weapons. This was done by passing harsh gun control laws, introducing generous buy-back schemes and an even-handed implementation.

Pakistan on the contrary faces an unenviable dilemma when it comes to controlling 20 million guns in the hands of its civilian population. Pakistan’s ruling political elite is the biggest hurdle in the creation of any gun control laws. A semi-functional bureaucracy and a completely politicised police further take away the remaining chances of implementation of even those laws which are currently merely on paper.

Therefore, it may be safe to assume that we have created the right recipe for an impending disaster. While we pray and hope that peace and safety is ensured in the country, the state should not be acting like an ostrich and refusing to see the writing on the wall.

The people of Pakistan have been made to stand next to a volcano that is about to erupt. The time to demand a complete ban on all weapons is now.

The writer is a management systems consultant and a freelance writer on social issues.