By Zubeida Mustafa
THE sense of insecurity that hangs heavy in the air in Karachi is almost palpable. Even when life is following its near normal routine — the jostling crowds, the unruly traffic and the noise — the uneasy feeling persists.
For me this normality is not reassuring. Unpleasant memories of traumatic experiences of yore lie hidden in the subconscious. The sight of an armed guard reminds me of the gun-driven violence that stalks the city. It is the gun that has been held twice to my head to rob me when the day was so beautiful. The last time this happened was a few years ago when my peaceful morning walk was interrupted by three armed youths on a motorbike, out to steal my pedometer — worth not more than Rs100. Everyone I meet has a ‘gun story’ to tell.
Worse still, it is the ubiquitous gun that was used to snatch away a dear friend and development worker, Perween Rahman. Others who have also fallen victim to the gun include the widely admired activist Sabeen Mahmud.
Yet our rulers insist that guns provide protection. They — including the police — have suggested that people should acquire weapons for their own safety. In their perverse logic, violence is best countered with violence; hence they facilitate the mass-scale weaponisation of society by issuing arms licences indiscriminately. They even turn a blind eye to those who acquire guns illegally. According to them this ‘balance of terror’ ensures our safety. If the criminal is armed, citizens should also be armed.
With the city awash with guns, can you really expect them not to be used?
Hence the staggering number of arms floating around. The Sydney-based GunPolicy.org estimates that there are 18 million guns owned privately in Pakistan, which is the sixth most heavily armed country out of the 178 on its list. By the government’s own admission, 10 million of these guns are illicit.
Not surprisingly, for ordinary civilians like us, the enemies we face are formidable. There are the militants/terrorists of various shades and hues, the private armies of numerous political parties, the criminal gangs waging gun battles in the city and the petty thieves who contribute to the high incidence of crime. They have one feature in common: they enjoy easy access to the gun.
With the city awash with arms, can you really expect them not to be used? Even obtaining (fudged) statistics about licences issued is a big challenge. Naeem Sadiq, who has been campaigning persistently for years under the banner of Citizens Against Weapons, has a woeful tale to tell. His attempts under the right to information law to obtain data on the number of licences issued by the provincial and federal governments under the right to information law have proved to be an exercise in futility. When he tried last to go through the process in March, only the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa home department belatedly provided some inaccurate information under pressure from the Information Ombudsman. The others didn’t even bother to respond.
Why is this information so sensitive? Sadiq is spot on when he says that three fundamental questions must be answered before a strategy can be drawn up to fight crime and violence in the country. ‘Who owns’, ‘how many weapons’ and ‘where do they come from’? A look at the record of the licences issued should tell us the full story.
The government says that unlicenced weapons are mostly used in crimes. This is all the more reason for a massive de-weaponisation programme. The thrust should be towards recovering all weapons that are privately owned — legally or illegally. It would be more feasible to first ask all civilians to deposit with the police the arms they hold. Thereafter, raids must be conducted to recover illegal arms.
Many such campaigns have been launched in the past but to no effect. Millions have been spent but no weapons were recovered while the authorities have continued to churn out arms licences.
Naeem Sadiq is not wrong in saying, “Little can be said in defence of a country that is engaged on the one hand in distributing gun licences and on the other fighting a war with the same militants that it arms”.
How do other nations feel about the gun? Recently, Barack Obama, the president of a country that has never curbed the ‘right’ of its citizens to own guns, told the BBC that he regards the biggest frustration of his presidency to be his failure to pass “common sense gun safety laws”. He pointed out that less than a hundred Americans have been killed in the US by terrorism since 9/11. The number killed by gun violence runs into thousands.
There is yet another example reflecting international concern on the evil implications of weaponisation — the UN Arms Trade Treaty that came into force in December 2014. It seeks to regulate trade in conventional weapons (including small arms), especially the trafficking of illicit arms. To date, 130 states have signed it and 72 have ratified it. And regrettably, Pakistan is missing from the list of signatories