By Charitha Ratwatte –
In the Officers’ Mess of Pakistan’s famed Frontier Force Regiment (the Piffers), at the Regimental Centre, located at Abbotabad near the Khyber Pass (the cantonment town at which US SEALS found and killed Osama bin Laden – remember?) on the border with Afghanistan, there is a huge mural, done in the days of the British Raj, showing a team of Mules pulling a huge Howitzer Canon into a battle field in the swirling dust, with a group of Madrassi sappers of the Madras Artillery hanging on to the Canon for dear life, with a young British officer of the British Indian Army in the lead.
The caption of the painting is the fervent words of a subaltern of the Gurkha Regiment, fighting with his Gurkhas deployed around him, returning the fire of Afghan irregulars firing at them, to his Captain, pointing at the Madrassis and crying out in relief: “The Guns, thank God, the Guns’.
One can imagine the relief of the young officer, his Gurkhas pinned down on an open valley by accurate fire from the Afghanis from the heights, calling through Morse code flag signals, in those pre-radio days, for artillery support to clear the Afghanis from the hills, and praying that the gunners would arrive soon, before his Gurkhas took too many more casualties.
Sandy Hook massacre
My mind went to this mural, which I had seen ages ago, when I read about the massacre of primary school children at Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown in the state of Connecticut in the USA.
The young disturbed killer there did not use a Howitzer, but in his hands the modern sporting rifle, a ‘black rifle,’ the semi automatic Bushmaster .223 with its multi bullet clip and the automatic pistols, a 10 millimetre Glock and a nine millimetre Sig Sauer, and ammunition designed for maximum damage, which he had purloined from his mother’s collection after shooting her at home, killed 20 children and six adults.
The Bushmaster is based on the design of AR-15 rifle developed by ArmaLite for the US Army. Although not fully automatic the AR -15s are capable of rapid fire, and large magazines holding 30, 50 or even 100 rounds reduce the need to stop and reload. It is also similar to ArmaLite’s AR 18, which became notorious in Britain as the weapon of choice of the Provisional IRA in Northern Ireland. The weapon has been described as an ‘Industrial Strength Killing Machine’.
The raw killing power which young Adam Lanza , just 20 years of age, carried with him, carried my thoughts to the Piffers and their mural of the Howitzer arriving at the battlefield and the young subaltern cry of relief to his commander, ‘The Guns, thank God, the Guns.’
The connection was reinforced when a spokesman of the National Rifle Association (NRA) of the USA, the pro-gun lobby, making a statement after a prolonged silence, the NRA as it normally does after a shooting massacre, had dived into its bunker, broke its silence and surfaced a few days ago and among other things said: “The only person who can stop a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy, with a gun!” The NRA is a strong defender of the Second Amendment right of the US Constitution: ‘The right to bear arms.’ The NRA’s standard credo is ‘Guns do not kill people, people kill people’!
Relevance to Sri Lanka
How is this relevant to us in Sri Lanka? Readers may not realise, but our country is a flood with weapons of all types. At the bottom of the pyramid are the country-made pistols – the ‘galkatas’.
Made in the smithys in our villages – the traditional ‘Kammalaya’ by the ‘Kammal-karaya,’ the baas of the smithy and his ‘golayas,’ apprentices. This single shot weapon is a direct descendant of the ‘Gingal,’ a weapon the Kandyan irregulars used against the European invaders into the Kandyan Provinces, also a product of the Kandyan Kings Royal Armoury.
Geoffrey Powell of the Green Howards Regiment of the British Army, in his well-researched book the ‘Kandyan Wars,’ records the ambushes mounted by the Kandyan irregulars using Gingals, on the soldiers of the Howards and other regiments, on the jungle tracks on which the soldiers had to move single file through dense forests, in their many abortive invasions of the Kandyan Kingdom.
The Kammala also produces the deadly trap gun, which is illegal, placed on animal tracks in forests, which a trip wires which fires the weapon. I have seen people’s legs shattered and blown off by this deadly weapon, which unfortunately remains the weapon of choice of the average Sri Lanka poacher. Innocent people collecting firewood or bees’ honey in the forest have to have their legs amputated, due to a poacher placing a trap gun on the track.
At the next level comes the shot gun, some with a sawn off barrel. Some shot guns both single and double barrel, are licensed. Sri Lanka’s fairly strict gun licensing laws allow licenses for the protection of self, crops, and property. The menace to agriculture and crops from wild boar and monkeys among other wild animals is such that farmers have to be given shotguns in the same way cattle rustling is so rampant that dairy farmers also need a gun to protect their herds.
Weapons in the public domain
During the abortive youth rebellions in the South in 1971 and 1989, and the civil war in the north from 1976 onwards, terrorists armed themselves by robbing shotguns from licensees. The majority of these guns have not been recovered and remain in the underworld with unlicensed holders.
During the times of terrorism, persons who were presumed to be targets, politicians and other such categories were issued with revolvers and automatic pistols for their protection. Information as to what percentage of these weapons has been recovered is not in the public domain.
There are some hilarious anecdotes on these issues of weapons. One of the best is about a senior defence bureaucrat and a senior politician who was finalising the list of political parties which were under threat from the terrorists and to whom weapons had to be issued. The bureaucrat was reading out the names of the parties and the politician replied yes or no.
It went like this: ‘Party A, Excellency?’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Party B, Excellency?’ ‘Yes,’ ‘Party C Excellency?’ Dead silence. The bureaucrat looks up from his list wondering why the silence and sees a broad smile on the politician’s face. The politician says: ‘Don’t worry about that lot, they don’t need pistols, HIV AIDS will get them, before the terrorists!’
Sometime later one of the politicians who had been issued an automatic pistol entered the senior defence bureaucrats’ office, as I was leaving. The bureaucrat, with a smile on his face, gestured for to me to wait back. He greeted the politician jovially and asked him, ‘how are you getting on with the pistol?’ The reply was ‘Very well thank you’. The bureaucrat said: ‘I would like to see the pistol.’ The politician: ‘Just send a message for my driver to bring my black briefcase, not the brown one.’ The bureaucrat’s orderly was dispatched. The orderly and the politician’s driver duly arrived with the black briefcase. He was asked to leave it behind and depart.
After the politician and the bureaucrat had finished their official business, the bureaucrat asked: ‘So where is the weapon?’ The politician reached for his black briefcase and paused; he told the bureaucrat sheepishly: ‘Can you please send for my driver again? I cannot remember the combination to open the combination lock on the briefcase!’
Finally the pistol was produced, a Smith and Wesson .38 automatic in mint condition, without a magazine. The bureaucrat sniffed at the barrel and discovered that it had not been fired. He asked the politician: ‘Did you go to the STF range to learn to operate and fire the weapon, as was arranged?’ The politician confessed that he had not. The bureaucrat sent the politician on his way, turned to me and said: ‘By the time that fellow gets at his black briefcase, finds his driver to find out the combination of the lock, gets at the pistol, loads it and learns to use it, terrorism will be history!’ This has turned out to be prophetic statement; terrorism is over – but have these weapons been recovered?
Weapons to counter terrorism
The armed forces and the Police were issued with powerful automatic rifles to counter terrorism. The USSR’s Kalashnikov 47 (AK47) and the Chinese equivalent the Type 56 (T56) were the weapons of choice. India’s Research and Intelligence Wing (RAW) armed the terrorists in the north with AK 47s.
The LTTE’s procurement wing also was able to supply the LTTE with AK 47s and Stinger surface to air missiles from Afghanistan, captured from the Soviet Army. When the IPKF was in Sri Lanka, the Indian Jawans had to fight the LTTE carrying AK 47s which could fire bursts, with single shot Self Loading Rifles (SLRs) standard Indian Army issue. It is said that Jawans would collect AK 47s from dead LTTE fighters to equate the fire power!
A Sri Lankan journalist is said to have asked General Kalkat, Commander of the IPKF about this disparity of fire power. The journalist claims that the General’s reply – off the record – was ‘unfortunately the Indian Army’s procurement rules are much stricter than the procurement rules RAW has to adhere to!’
These AK 47s and T 56 weapons picked up from dead soldiers and terrorists on the battlefield also have found their way through market forces into the hands of the underworld. Newspaper reports talk of buried weapons being recovered by troops in the north and east. T 56 issued to Policemen all over the country, during the civil war and insurgencies, seemed to have withdrawn and some Police officers are seen carrying revolvers.
A recent incident on Bauddhaloka Mawatha, where a politician was allegedly driving completely on the wrong side of the road, and knocked into an oncoming vehicle, which had ended up with a person from Beliatta who claimed to be the politician’s driver allegedly picking up a pistol and stepping out of the vehicle and threatening bystanders, shows how common such weapons are in the country.
Reports of shooting incidents are routine in the newspapers and on radio and TV; the latest being shots being fired at the house of the President of the Bar Association of Sri Lanka. The Secretary of the Judicial Service Commission was also allegedly pistol whipped in Mount Lavinia. Weapons really proliferate in this country as common as stray dogs!
At Siripura, Aralaganwila, an Army deserter is reported to have carried out some robberies and shot himself with his T56, when the Police was about to get him. A pro-Government member of the Kelaniya PS has been assassinated in cold blood outside his house by two masked assassins on a motorbike.
Gun violence in the US
In the USA there are an estimated 10,000 deaths a year by gun violence. America’s murder rate is four times higher than Britain’s and six times higher than Germany’s. Only a special breed of jackass will deny the connection between the proliferation of guns and the murder rate. Americans own an estimated 300 million guns, more than one for every adult.
The Second Amendment to the American Bill of Rights reads: ‘A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.’ The American right wing politicians bolstered by the NRA will not allow any reasonable regulation of guns, saying it would be a violation of the Second Amendment.
While Republicans generally support a pristine Second Amendment, more reasonable Democrats, especially those who are up for re-election, do not even speak of gun regulation, as they are fearful of the NRA’s vote machine, which has successfully unseated proponents of gun regulation. However, recently the Democratic Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee has stated that she will reintroduce a bill reinstating a ban on assault weapons imposed in 1994, which lapsed in 2004.
The US Supreme Court, presently dominated by conservative Republican appointees, recently struck down laws which regulated the use of hand guns in Chicago and Washington DC. In the US, things like driving a car or buying a pet animal are more regulated than gun ownership!
President Obama speaking after the Connecticut shooting said: “We can’t tolerate this anymore. These tragedies must end and to end them we must change… Are we really prepared to say that we are powerless in the face of such carnage? Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom? Surely we can do better than this?”
The President pledged to ‘use whatever power this office holds’ to prevent further bloodshed. The President was referring to a roll call of gun massacres in the US, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, and Jonesboro which preceded the latest at Sandy Hook Elementary school. Of 62 mass murders carried out in the US since 1962, three quarters of the 139 firearms used by the killers were held legally. Of these more than 60 were semi automatic hand guns and over 30 were assault rifles similar to young Lanza’s mother’s Bushmaster.
The NRA has more than four million members. According to the Small Arms Survey of 2007, there were at that time 88.8 firearms for every 100 Americans. Sadly US legal and political trends in the last few years have been moving away from support for greater controls.
James Jacobs, Director of the Centre for Research in Crime and Justice at New York University, says: “All of the policy momentum in the last 20 years has been in the direction of gun owner’s rights.” Gun control was not taken up by Obama in his first term; it was seen by most democrats as an issue on which they dare not fight. The NRA worked actively against Obama’s re election. Cynics say: “On gun control, Democrats remain paralysed by the fear of losing voters whom they have already lost!”
The NRA rates US politicians on their attitude to the Second Amendment. But today, even ‘A’ rated Senators like Joe Manchin Democratic Senator from West Virginia have changed their stand after Sandy Hill, and have publicly called upon the NRA to come to the table for discussions on the issue. Obama has appointed a Task Force chaired by Vice President Biden to look at ways to reduce gun violence which will report in January.
The right to keep and bear arms in the US Constitution has to be reasonably read in the context of the emergence of the Republic in the late 1770s. American irregulars had fought a regular British Army to a defeat with weapons they had at their homes. The framers of the Constitution felt that the right of the citizenry to have arms with them was the only way of ensuring that the people would be able to rise and overthrow a despotic regime, similar to Britain’s George the III’s, which they had just driven out.
Also, Americans then were basically farmers living in isolated farms and hamlets, who needed the means of defending themselves against outlaws, robbers, and wild animals. It is a far cry from today’s highly urbanised country. This is why President Obama’s call for reform is timely.
Experience of other nations
The experience of other nations is also useful to look at. In Australia in 1996, a mass killing of 35 people at Port Arthur, Tasmania, galvanised the nation’s newly-elected conservative Prime Minister to ban certain rapid fire rifles. The National Fire Arms Agreement legislation, as it was known, was structured and agreed upon. This led to the Government buying back 650,000 guns and tighter rules for licensing and safe storage of those remaining in public hands.
The laws did not end gun ownership in Australia, but reduced the number of firearms in private hands by one fifth, and they were the kinds most likely used in mass shootings. In the 18 years before the new legislation, Australia suffered 13 mass shootings, but not a single one in 14 years after the law took full effect. The murder rate with firearms has dropped by more than 40%. The suicide rate with firearms has dropped by more than half.
In Canada, a 28 day waiting period is imposed on a person applying to buy a gun. This imposes a safeguard against impulse buying. Gun buyers need to have the support and be recommended by two people known to them.
In the UK, access to firearms were restricted following the 1987 Hungerford massacre and handguns were effectively banned in the aftermath of the 1996 school shooting in Dunblane. Finland, which has one of the most relaxed controls on gun ownership, placed extra restrictions on handgun licenses after a 2008 college shooting which killed 11 people.
Not all nations react in such a manner. Norway, which has relatively strict controls, did not alter its laws even after Anders Behring’s carnage in 2011 on an island near Stockholm, at a political party’s youth wing event. In the American federal system, gun laws are generally set by the states. The irony is that Connecticut has relatively strict laws compared to others.
Gun regulation in Sri Lanka
What of gun regulation in Sri Lanka? The law is clear. Possessing an unlicensed weapon is illegal. Getting a gun license involves a fair vetting process, including the local Grama Niladhari, the OIC of the local Police Station, the Superintendent of Police of the area, and the Divisional Secretary. The problem is the vast number of unlicensed guns; an amnesty and buy back scheme as in Australia might work.
Strict law enforcement by local DIG Police being compelled to arrest, it’s already a non bail-able offence, those having illegal weapons in their custody and raids on political parties and their acolytes who are illegally retaining weapons issued during the insurgencies and civil war will also help.
We have to move soon, before the gun culture becomes embedded in us. The law already provides a Right of Private Defence. Some categories of persons under threat may require weapons to protect themselves. They should get a license. Some 34 US States have the notorious ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws which allow people to use deadly force when they feel threatened.
Our Right to Private Defence does not go that far, the amount of force used must be proved to be reasonable in relation to the perceived threat, but vulnerable people can obtain a legal weapon if they feel they need one, and can establish the threat adequately to the licensing authorities.
We need quick action. Before the shooting incidents become an epidemic, and we too are compelled to mouth the words, ‘The Guns, thank God, the Guns,’ needing ‘a good guy with gun, to stop a bad guy, with a gun,’ as is the NRA’s credo.