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Weapons of mass destruction

The spurt in crime in many parts of America is widely attributed to the nexus between drugs and guns, writes RK Raghavan.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2007 22:22 IST

The murder of Chandrasekhar Reddy and Kiran Kumar, the two Indian Louisiana State University students, last week near Governor Bobby Jindal’s city Baton Rouge has left both Americans and Indians shocked. The FBI has joined the investigation, but there is no indication yet regarding the motive for the murders. This gory incident may well rattle all those in India who have children in American campuses. Viewed in conjunction with the Virginia Tech massacre in April when one Indian student and one Indian professor lost their lives, apprehensions about security arrangements in and around US universities are legitimate.

Having savoured two years of campus life in the US, I can vouch for the fact that the situation there is not all that dangerous for parents here to abandon thoughts of sending their children to study in America. Undoubtedly, you have to take reasonable precautions that a prudent person would observe, especially in a country where you must presume that everyone whom you confront on the street is armed. (There is nothing to indicate, however, that Reddy and Kiran Kumar were negligent. They were possibly the unfortunate victims of a mindless crime that is so much part of present-day life in any part of the world.)

Campus police in the US are reasonably well-organised, and university authorities are generally willing to go an extra length to protect students and faculty members. Frequent crimes would mar a university’s reputation and affect the number of applications. Also, transparency in reporting incidents to students is highly respected. Any wilful suppression of news could be extremely damaging to a university administration.

Having said that, certain disturbing trends in the US cannot be ignored. After a few years of a perceptible drop in violent crime, the graph is now rising. While New York City and Los Angeles may be an exception — because of initiatives taken by the two dynamic Police Commissioners, Ray Kelly and Bill Bratton — homicides and other forms of violence are definitely going up elsewhere. Medium-size cities like Philadelphia now report a grave situation, especially with regard to gun-related crime. In Washington DC, there have been more than 170 homicides this year alone, of which 77 per cent have been from the use of guns. It is not for nothing that the DC area is often referred to as the ‘murder capital’ of the US.

The spurt in crime in many parts of America is widely attributed to the nexus between drugs and guns. Gun ownership is the predominant characteristic of drug gangs, who use it to settle scores with rival gangs and the interfering police. And the high priority that mayors and sheriffs give to anti-drug operations has led to a huge diversion of resources at the cost of basic policing. There is, therefore, a significant demand now that at least some drug offences should be decriminalised so that there is less scope for an underground market peddling drugs at exorbitant prices. The belief is that once profit margins are down, most of the drug gangs will go out of business. This is not an illogical assessment. Legalisation of some drugs like heroin and cocaine may, however, result in a ludicrous situation where the unemployed members of drug gangs could take to other forms of crime. There is a Catch-22 situation here for the city administration.

The dilemma with regard to enforcement of the drug law notwithstanding, there is a well-known laxity in a majority of US states that do not favour excessive restriction on guns. This is evident in the might of the gun lobby represented by the National Rifle Association (NRA), which has strong Republican connections. Former New York Mayor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate nominee Rudi Giuliani was a well-known votary of gun restrictions while he held office. Now, he isn’t that warm to gun control, for the fear of alienating a sizeable chunk of the party’s leadership devoted to a liberal gun policy.

This infusion of politics into gun licensing and ownership partly explains the worsening crime scene. Those who are for guns cite the Second Amendment to the American Constitution: that a well-regulated militia is necessary for the security of a free State, with the right of the people to keep and bear arms not being infringed. Commonsense would urge us to believe that this amendment was probably a provision to merely authorise the government to raise and maintain an army to secure the nation’s interests — not to permit individual citizens to flaunt firearms. The matter went to the US Supreme Court in 1939 in the famous State vs Miller case, when the court upheld the ‘collective rights’ approach. Interestingly, the matter has now again gone to the courts after a US Court of Appeals endorsed earlier this year a federal court’s ruling that a Washington ordinance imposing a total ban on hand guns violated the Constitution. The Supreme Court will hear the arguments next March in a District of Columbia appeal. Whether the court will give a decisive ruling is anybody’s guess.

The crime scene in the US will continue to worry city administrations as well as many of us in India with close ties in America. This is especially in the context of the projected recession in the US economy and resultant job losses. Unemployment and volume of crime are closely linked to each other. What is more germane to our context is that in many US states, the gun law is either liberal or has too many loopholes. The youth who killed 32 people at Virginia Tech in April had a known history of mental illness and yet he managed to acquire two firearms.

On the face of it, gun licensing in India is strict. There are reasons, however, to believe that there is a laxity of late that enables the rich and famous to acquire licences at will. Considering what happened at a Gurgaon school recently, there is every case for tighter control over the process. Differing standards of licensing in various parts of the country should also be a matter of concern. There is a need for the Centre to step in and tell the states that a liberal licensing policy is hardly conducive to controlling violent crime. States are also required to monitor the arrival of weapons from across the border.

RK Raghavan is a former Director, Central Bureau of Investigation