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According to aid groups, India accounts for about 40 million of the 75 million illegal small arms currently in circulation.
For nearly 10 years, 27-year-old "Sanjay," who asked that his real name not be revealed, was part of the problem. A short, muscular young man with a close-trimmed beard, Sanjay parlayed a job in a metal shop in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, into a lucrative career as a gun runner between 1992 and 2000. Then one of his own gang members betrayed him, setting him up for an ambush by a rival crew who had placed a false order for a thousand pistols.
"We had been given half the money. On the last day when we were doing all the packing up, they came and attacked us. Three of my men got killed, including our best gun maker, who was their target all along," Sanjay said. "He was a very close friend of mine. He was the one who saved my life. But in doing so he got killed. That's when I decided to stop the business."
In the beginning, Sanjay's crew made cartridges with gunpowder sourced from a local company licensed to make firecrackers and fuses contrived from feathers rolled with carbon and chemicals found in detergent and other household products. Then, he graduated to making .315 and .12 bore pistols in three different barrel lengths: "small," "quarter" and "half" — the same terms used for bottles of local whiskey. His best products, with barrels sourced from Rampur, another district in Uttar Pradesh, could be fired three times in rapid succession without overheating, and they never exploded in a customer's hand. He sold them for between $50 and $100, compared with nearly $2,000 for a simple legal .32 caliber revolver made by one of India's official, government-owned ordnance factories.
"Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."
- "Sanjay," former dealer in illegal guns
Villagers bought his weapons to show off and protect themselves from wild animals and bandits. Schoolboys and college kids bought them to protect themselves in the cutthroat business of student politics. But most of Sanjay's customers were criminal gangs who enjoyed the patronage of local politicians, who use thugs or "goondas" to influence voters and even capture polling booths during elections. And now with ethnic tensions, overcrowding and scalding temperatures causing tempers to flare, country-made pistols have come to the city, and it's not just hardened criminals pulling guns.
"Earlier guns were used as mostly status symbols," said Rajat Mitra, a psychologist and expert on violence who works closely with the police. "But now guns are seen as a way of solving problems, of resolving issues, of using threats and intimidation that were not considered necessary earlier. And there is a perception among a very large number of young people and even children that having a gun is not morally wrong."
Last year, in a typically petty incident, 22-year-old Himanshu Sharma was shot dead in an altercation over urinating on the street. This June, another 22-year-old was shot and killed in an argument over water, a married couple from different castes was gunned down in an apparent "honor killing" and a government employee shot three security guards, killing one, when they barred him from entering a building in the city's red light district.
In response to this kind of violence, India's home ministry has tightened the laws on licensed guns, which DCP Dhaliwal said "haven't been any problem at all," while allowing the rotten core of the illegal gun trade to fester. And insiders say that as long as pervasive corruption continues to make politics the country's biggest money spinner — turning elected officials with no real assets into millionaires in a single term — nobody will destroy the factories who arm the parties' musclemen.
"This game happens at a big level," said Sanjay, who now works as a police informer. "Otherwise it couldn’t happen. Mostly it’s politicians who help us. Police and politicians both together help us do business. Nothing happens without their sanction."