ON March 1, a burst of gunfire snuffed out the life of a gentle soul in Washington D.C. He was a social worker helping the mentally challenged and drug addicts. He was Jawaid Bhutto, a teacher of philosophy and a progressive scholar in Pakistan before he moved to the US. I knew him as my friend and the husband of a former colleague Nafisa Hoodbhoy. Bhutto’s death grieved us immensely.
The irony didn’t escape me on this occasion. Here was a man who was known to be an ardent advocate of peace and love as well as gun control laws being killed by someone who was not entitled to be carrying a gun, given his mental state, so it was reported.
Such are the ways of America where the gun is god. I would also say this was a murder committed not by just one man — it was a killing by the entire gun lobby in America which has now globalised its reach. I still remember the pain in Barack Obama’s voice when he said in a television interview that “failure to tackle gun control has been the greatest frustration of my presidency”. It was horrifying to learn that Bhutto’s killing was the 50th case of homicide in D.C. alone since the start of the year. According to New York Times column writer Nicholas Kristof, the US has suffered more gun deaths (1.45 million) since 1970 than have occurred in all the wars that America has fought in the same period.
A fortnight after his killing, the world was shaken by the mosques shooting in Christchurch, New Zealand, that took the lives of 50 worshippers as the country’s gun control laws were lax and a white supremacist could buy guns and shoot at will. The prime minister of New Zealand, Ms Jacinda Ardern, reacted with compassion, immediately promising, “Our gun laws will change”. And they did within a week.
It was a murder committed not by a single man but by the entire gun lobby.
These gunshot incidents are horrifying. Yet we in Pakistan react differently. I can count people known to me personally who were shot dead in Karachi — Perween Rahman, Abdul Waheed Khan, Zara Hussain and Sabeen Mahmud. Thousands have been targeted but these deaths didn’t stir our leadership the way similar killings moved Obama (who actually cried in public) and Ms Ardern.
Glance at some of the data to know where we stand and why we need the compassion of Obama and Ardern in our macho leadership. Guns in Pakistan have more than doubled in the last decade — 1.8m in 2007 and 4.39m licensed (with another 30m illicit ones) in 2017, says Naeem Sadiq of Citizens against Weapons, the sole civil society group in the country demanding a ban on guns.
Why is the government so unresponsive? True the laws are weak and inadequate. Sadiq says they allow too much discretion to the licensing authorities. They are discriminatory and licences are given to the rich and powerful as a bribe or political favour. Surely the government can change this. It doesn’t because it uses guns as a political tool. The excuse given is that guns are ostensibly needed for the security of the citizens. This is an incongruous excuse in a country where the state is bound to protect the lives of all its citizens and where the Constitution bans private armies (Article 256). Given this attitude, it is not surprising that no strict background checks are carried out by the licensing authorities.
For the last several years, CaW’s has been the single voice in Pakistan, demanding unequivocally a de-weaponisation programme that includes the surrender of all illicit weapons and buyback of all licensed arms. CaW has cited Australia and Britain as models for this process.
CaW also wants “the government to explicitly declare that all categories of weapons lie only in the domain of the state and no citizen, group or gang will be allowed to possess, carry or display any weapon — licensed or otherwise”.
It is time each of us who value human life should demand the same. Pakistan is at a watershed point. It is a do-or-die moment for the country. The choice is between surviving by cracking down on the militant extremists who thrive on terrorism or perishing by allowing a free rein to those who believe their path to paradise is awash with the blood of victims of terror attacks. They should have been disbanded a long time ago under the National Action Plan.
NAP could never have succeeded even if the government was serious because it had no provision for de-weaponisation. Today, there is much that is being said about mainstreaming the terrorist lashkars, but again, the issue of de-weaponisation does not figure in the picture. It would be horrifying to visualise hordes of fully armed bloodthirsty brutes being let loose in the name of mainstreaming.
There is a need to look at the gun control issue more closely and wisely.
Published in Dawn, March 29th, 2019