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Making Karachi gun-free

by Naeem Sadiq, 24 September 2008

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Dawn, 24 September 2008

KARACHI may have much in common with other Third World cities, but its graduation from a metropolis with the usual street crimes to one featuring institutional mob violence distinguishes it from its peers.

Karachi has dozens of well-armed private militias ready to spring into action taking their cue from the local street commander or even an undesirable TV ticker. The possibility of a major conflict constantly lurks around the corner.

Pakistan, according to the International Action Networks on Small Arms, has one of the highest per capita figures of gun ownership in the world. Though there are no official figures, rough estimates put the total number of small arms, licenced and unlicenced, in the country at more than 20 million. Civilians are the largest category of gun owners, holding more weapons than the military and the police.

Karachi records some 1,400 gun-related murders each year. Karachiites are frequently exposed to riots, car snatching, mobile snatching or armed groups demanding the closure of businesses. Often when tension builds up, the situation rapidly transforms itself into a shootout taking the lives of innocent citizens.

The problem has been further compounded by the feudal mindset of the Pakistani elite, which believes that the display and brandishing of weapons is a sign of power, status and influence. Eager to convey this message, hundreds of them, drive around unchecked with weapon-brandishing goons. Likewise their homes are protected by private guards carrying illegal weapons.

Responsible governments take the issue of gun control with great seriousness. Malaysia has developed strict laws resulting in a near zero gun violence rate. The Japanese law is a classic example of ‘less words, more action’. It simply says, “No one shall possess a firearm or a sword.” Thailand plans to be gun-free in five years. Even Bangladesh has rapidly moved to improve its gun registration, control and recovery processes.

Pakistan, on the other hand, despite its high rate of violence, has continued to pay lip service to this very serious problem. In fact it has gone out of its way to add fuel to the fire. Some time ago, the Punjab home department issued ‘non-prohibited bore’, ‘free of cost’ weapon licences to 60 top bureaucrats. Not to be left behind, our London-based MQM leader asked his followers in Karachi to start collecting guns for self-defence. The sale of weapons in Karachi went up 15 times, much to the delight of arms dealers.

The belief that possessing a gun makes one safe has been proven wrong time and again. Every person acquiring a weapon contributes to a mini armament race pushing yet more people to acquire or upgrade their weapons. Karachi has just too many weapons and too little of law to be a peaceful city. Despite its frequent appeals for peace, the government fails to see the obvious connection between violence and guns. The initiative to make Karachi a peaceful and gun-free city must therefore come from its real stakeholders — the citizens.Turning Karachi into a gun-free city is a complex but doable task. Complex, because it demands strong political will, stakeholder participation, and a scientific and sustained methodology. The last two are often the missing links. A three-stage programme can be drawn up to make Karachi a gun-free city. Stage one, typically called the ‘planning’ stage, involves conceptualising and agreeing on a complete action plan from beginning to end. This would involve issues like the consensus of stakeholders, timetables for the surrender of weapons, compensation, collection of statistics, incentives, penalties and dividing Karachi into well-defined ‘gun accountability’ zones.

Planning would also include procedures for storage, records, computerisation, management of returned weapons, monitoring, verification, searches and rewards for whistleblowers and information providers. The involvement of the police, government, politicians, citizens and organisations like Shehri, CPLC, HRCP and many others who work on peace- and justice-related issues is critical to the process. Needless to say the gun-free city project has no chance of success if it is not implemented in an even-handed manner and without discrimination.

The second stage involves converting the plan into action. The first step is to widely disseminate the plan and create public awareness and support. This would need a well-planned and massive media campaign. The action phase must begin by the government first disarming its own officials and politicians (the most difficult part). Except for law-enforcement personnel (when in uniform and on duty), carrying and displaying weapons for all else must be completely forbidden.

Private security agencies must be disarmed. If a private armed guard is found outside the gate or inside the vehicle of any official, it is the official who should be held responsible. TV and newspaper ads should ask citizens to report any violations and the police must respond rapidly. Political leaders must be asked to appeal to their followers to surrender all weapons and should themselves take the lead in doing so. Needless to say the issuance of new licences should be stopped altogether.

The second stage cannot be effective unless there is a strong mechanism for checks and balances. Thus independent groups must be established to monitor the effectiveness of the gun-free city initiative. Scientific monitoring processes, audits, routine on ground checks, and random snapshot checks must be established to verify compliance. The data thus collected should be analysed and necessary corrective actions taken.

The last stage involves the programme being subjected to regular joint reviews by all stakeholders who must have the authority to effect necessary changes for improvement. The general public should be kept informed.

Pakistan could learn from the experience of El Salvador, a nation with the highest crime rate in Latin America. It decided to implement a ‘free from guns’ policy for its violent San Martin municipality. In the first eight months, San Martin saw gun-related homicides drop by 30 per cent and the overall crime rate by more than half. Can Karachi replicate the San Martin model and become Pakistan’s first gun-free city?

naeemsadiq at gmail.com