The Horror of Gun Control in Mumbai

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As Ronald Reagan
would say, “Here we go again!”

How many Rwanda,
Columbine, Virginia Tech, Warsaw Ghetto, post-office, and other
shootings do people have to endure before they face reality? How
long does it take to learn a simple lesson: unarmed people are more
vulnerable to terrorists, criminals, and crazed people than armed
ones? Now the terrible toll in Mumbai: some 175 killed and several
hundred others wounded.

The headlines
in India and across the world should have read, “Terrorists
and Gun Control Claim More Victims.” Instead, the complicity
of the various Indian governments – national, state, and city
– was ignored and their inability to protect the victims of
that tragic event was barely questioned. The truth is that, except
for a few policemen on the scene, all the victims were unarmed by
public policy. India has among the strictest gun-control laws on
Earth, which, according to gun-control advocates, should have made
Mumbai one of the safest cities on the planet. So it shouldn’t
surprise anyone with common sense or a historical perspective that
disarmed citizens and visitors had no way of defending themselves
and were, once again, the victims not only of terrorists, but of
the misguided, immoral policy of their governments.

As Alexander
the Great found out when he invaded India in 326 B.C., its people
are keen fighters and weapon innovators. The British, India’s
colonial ruler from 1757 to 1947, suppressed this martial tradition,
disarmed the populace, and destroyed the domestic firearms industry
to ensure their rule, particularly after the Sepoy Rebellion of
1857. The Indian Arms Act of 1878 forbade Indians to possess weapons,
with the exception of those considered loyal. The law did not apply
to Europeans who could, of course, possess and carry arms at their
discretion.

The Indian
subcontinent has been racked with strife since independence and
the partition in 1947 between India and Pakistan. That may explain
why the newly independent Indian government saw fit to keep the
British gun-control laws in place for another 12 years before replacing
them with similar measures of their own in 1959 and later years.
Though not as severe as the British gun-control laws, suffice it
to say India’s laws discourage the private possession of firearms,
making it nearly impossible for the average Indian to own or use
guns, all under the pretext of crime control.

Yet such measures
have not curtailed violence on the subcontinent. For example, following
the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984 by two
of her Sikh bodyguards, as many as 3,000 Sikhs died in four days
of riots throughout the country. In 2002, a Muslim mob murdered
59 Hindus in a railway car at the Godhra railway station by first
stoning them and then setting the railway car in which they traveled
on fire. Gun control made those poor people easy victims. Had they
been armed, would it have prevented the violence? No one knows,
but at least they would have stood a better chance to survive.

As for the
terrorist attack in Mumbai, can you imagine what would have happened
to the terrorists, once they started shooting, if the people around
them had not been prevented by their government from exercising
their God-given right to keep and bear arms, but had instead been
armed? Well, imagine being surrounded by hundreds of angry, frightened,
armed people shooting back and fighting for their lives – a
well-deserved nightmare for terrorists and criminals. A number of
innocent people would surely have been killed and wounded anyway.
After all, the terrorists had the element of surprise. But I doubt
the number of dead and injured would have been so great. I can almost
guarantee that far more than the 10 terrorists so far accounted
for would have bitten the dust. More than 200 years ago, Thomas
Jefferson quoted Cesare Beccaria, father of modern criminology:

The laws
that forbid the carrying of arms … disarm only those who are
neither inclined nor determined to commit crime…. Such laws
make things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants;
they serve to encourage rather than to prevent homicides, for
an unarmed man may be attacked with greater confidence than an
armed one.

India has no
excuse. The father of Indian independence, Mohandas Gandhi, observed
in 1927,

Among the
many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look
upon the act of depriving a whole nation of its arms as the blackest.

Let’s
hope the Indian government has learned its lesson and that there
are no more Mumbais.

October
17, 2009

Benedict
LaRosa [send him mail]
is a historian and writer with undergraduate and graduate degrees
in history from the U.S. Air Force Academy and Duke University,
respectively. He is the author of Gun
Control: An Historical Perspective
and other works.

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