The unholy licenses
Consider the recent public notice by the Federal Government declaring that all gun licenses issued before 31 January 2011 would stand cancelled if not renewed through NADRA by 31 December 2015. There are two unstated assumptions built into this declaration. First that the licenses issued after 2011 are ‘kosher’ and second that a license is considered genuine simply because it is computerised, ‘smart’ and issued by NADRA. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Pakistan is fighting a complex and challenging war against terror. How it deals with the menace of approximately 12 million illegal weapons and some 8 million fake gun licenses will determine the outcome of this war. The actions taken so far (largely in the form of speeches, conferences and newspaper declarations) have been hugely disappointing.
To get some idea of the extent of spurious gun licenses, one needs to recall the announcement by late Shuja Khanzada, the brilliant ex Home Minister of Punjab. He told the Punjab Assembly that 50 per cent of 1.8 million arms licences issued in the province were bogus and without any traceability. A few months later, the Sindh government came to a similar conclusion. Its 595,146 arms licences (out of 1.1 million) were declared dubious as their holders failed to come forward to undergo the license verification process.
How did the government respond to the discovery of these mind-boggling licensing frauds? Here was a brilliant opportunity to build afresh a rational and robust licensing system. One expected the government to revamp the entire licensing process and initiate a fresh debate on issues like, “Why should a person be given a gun-license at all if the state is responsible for protection of life and property of all citizens. Have the licenses enhanced or reduced the level of violence. What led to such massive breakdown of our licensing system and what should be the criteria (if at all), for issuing a license?”. It was also a perfect opportunity to strike down all prohibited bore gun licenses regardless of when and who they were issued to.
Regretfully no such soul-searching was considered necessary. Instead we saw a wave of repetitive newspaper advertisements warning citizens that their gun licenses would stand cancelled unless renewed by a particular date. A dozen such deadlines have already expired without the federal or the provincial governments batting an eyelid. There were no official notifications for cancellation of invalid licenses nor was a demand made for the return of weapons obtained on the basis of such licenses. All that was done was to push forward the deadlines, perhaps as a mark of respect for criminals and militants.
In a highly discretionary and ill-managed system, any license, regardless of its computerisation and ‘smartness’, would remain a suspect. Take for example the incident of 2013, when two senior NADRA officers were arrested for issuing 300 arms licences using fake licence booklets. In yet another incident in April 2015, three NADRA employees were arrested in Islamabad, for their alleged involvement in forging arms licences. More recently, the TV Channels reported the arrest in Multan of an arms dealer for selling weapons on fake licenses obtained with the connivance of the Multan Arms Licensing Department. Ninety such fake licenses were found in his possession, while hundreds had already been sold out. Hence the government’s understanding of the ‘good and the bad’ licenses based on pre and post 2011 era is hugely misplaced.
An important facet of the gun licensing process that is rarely questioned and often overlooked is the fact that the majority of licenses were issued without ensuring compliance with the laid down prerequisites. An individual must possess a NADRA verified national identity card, must be a tax payer, have no criminal record, be security cleared by police and must have no mental illness, in order to qualify for a gun license. Surely a NADRA issued ‘smart’ gun license is just as bogus, if not linked to and not backed up by evidence of meeting these requirements.
Pakistan would do well to revisit Article 25 of the Constitution which states that all citizens are equal and are entitled to equal protection of law. Distribution of arms licenses, almost exclusively to the elite section of society has added a new dimension to the class divide. Should the state not erase these dividing lines, provide equal protection to all citizens and actively work towards a weapon-free society.