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The Arms Act, 1959 regulates the acquisition and ownership of guns in India with the issuance of gun licenses. The Act also covers manufacture, sale, import and export of arms and ammunition. The Arms (Amendment) Bill, 2019 was recently passed by the Rajya Sabha on December 10, 2019.
It introduces new category of offences, changes the possession and license provisions mentioned in the 1959 Act and enhances punishment for certain offences.
Gun violence is a contemporary human rights issue and thereby, the Bill has been introduced to control the illegal misuse of weapons in the country and to ensure the safety of human life.
Union Minister of State for Home G Kishan Reddy said that “It is for national security that we have gotten this enactment. Unlawful assembling of arms is going on in certain spots like the little scale industry. We are proposing stringent disciplines for individuals engaged with such acts.”
Measures to reduce deaths induced by celebratory fires:
The government had previously introduced the Arms (Second Amendment) Rules, 2018, keeping in mind the misuse of guns and celebratory firing. Under this amendment, the names of all arms license holders – new or old – was to be included in a national database and a unique identification number (UIN) was developed. This was done to ensure that unregistered owners will lose their license.
The Amendment Bill of 2019, introduces a new provision for the celebratory gunfire. Individuals who use firearms in public gatherings such as religious places, parties, and other celebrations can be jailed for up to two years or fine up to one lakh rupees or both.
There have been several instances in the past year itself, wherein people have lost their lives by accidentally getting shot due to the age-old tradition or style symbol of firing a gun during weddings and New Year’s Eve. This has always endangered the personal safety of others and thus, the new stringent provision regarding celebratory fires can prove to be a boon for the protection of the society as a whole.
Amendment of Section 27(3) of the Arms Act, 1959
The constitutionality of the punishment mentioned under Section 27(3) was challenged in the Supreme Court in the case of State of Punjab v. Dalbir Singh. The section stated that any contravention of Section 7 of the Act, i.e, the manufacture, sale, and use of prohibited arms and ammunition, resulting in the death of any person shall be punishable with death.
The Supreme Court held the provision to be ‘widely-worded’ and observed that a law that imposes an irreversible penalty such as death is ‘repugnant to the concept of right and reason’. The Amendment Bill of 2019 has now revised the existing punishment of death to death or life imprisonment, with fine.
The Bill, likewise revises Section 25 (1AA) of the Arms Act and proposes punishment of at least 14 years and mostly life sentence for the individuals who snatch or loot arms. Under the 1959 Act, the offence welcomes the invitation for imprisonment of not less than seven years and mostly up to 14 years.
Other salient features of the bill:
- It is obligatory under the Act to obtain a license to acquire, possess, or carry any firearm. The failure to obtain license in such cases were used to be punished with imprisonment between five and ten years, along with fine. The Bill increases the punishment to imprisonment between seven and 14 years, along with fine.
- The Bill has also, increased the duration of the validity of a firearm license from three years to five years.
- The Act prohibits manufacture, sale, use, transfer, conversion, testing or proofing of firearms, obtaining un-licensed firearms, and the conversion of one category of firearms into another without a license. The punishment for these offences along with the import and export of banned firearms has been increased by the Bill from between three years and seven years, along with a fine to between seven years and life imprisonment, along with a fine.
- The dealing in prohibited firearms (including their manufacture, sale and repair) without a license, is punishable with imprisonment between seven years and life imprisonment, along with fine. The Bill has increased the minimum punishment from seven years to 10 years. These prohibited weapons, specifically the probated weapons are being brought in from China and Thailand to north-eastern Indian regions.
- The Bill enables sportspersons, in need of firearms and ammunition for practice or for tournaments or members of rifle clubs to use any firearm for target practice instead of only .22 bore rifles or air rifles.
- Section 3 of The Act has now been amended, which has reduced the number of permitted firearms an individual can carry from three to one. As per the Bill, those who own excess firearms will have to deposit them within one year to the authorities or nearby police station or a licensed firearm dealer or a unit armoury (in case of a member of the armed forces) for de-licensing.
- The Bill introduces new categories of offences: (1) the forceful taking away of a firearm from police or armed forces has been proposed with an imprisonment between 10 years and life imprisonment, along with a fine, (2) the celebratory gunfire punishment as already discussed above.
- The Bill also defines offences committed by organised crime syndicates (two or more persons committing organised crime) and illicit trafficking (includes illegal trade, acquisition and sale). The possession of firearms or ammunition by a member of a syndicate and illicit trafficking shall be punishable with imprisonment between 10 years and life imprisonment, along with a fine.
According to an estimate, India has a total of around 35 lakh gun licences. Thirteen lakh people have licences to carry weapons in Uttar Pradesh, along with the Jammu-Kashmir, where 3.9 lakh people possess arms licences, most of which were issued for self-defence and personal security. Punjab has around 3.6 lakh active gun licences, most of which were issued during the two decades (1980s and 1990s) of strife.
The Bill provides a provision enabling the Central Government to make rules to track firearms from the manufacturer to the purchaser to detect, investigate, and analyse illicit manufacturing and trafficking.
In several areas of Bihar, UP and Punjab, it is very easy for people to go and buy illicit, smuggled weapons without obtaining a license. The Bill thus, seeks to limit and completely put an end to such purchases, endangering human life so as to ensure that firearms aren’t used in a rash and negligent manner.
The Bill when proposed, received the dissent of several ministers concerning certain provisions but it was passed in both the houses without any changes. The Punjab CM stated that crimes using licensed weapons are very less and thus, the limitation to carry only one firearm must not be compulsorily imposed.
Another conflict which arose during such proposal was that the farmers require more than one firearm for security reasons. The President has recently given his assent to the Bill and thus, it has now become an Act.
Author: Shashank Khati from Symbiosis Law School, Pune.
Editor: Farsana Sadiq from Faculty of Law, Jamia Millia Islamia.