A bank heist in India reawakens gun crime worries

It was a classic bank heist in many ways. Armed men using a stolen car and motorbikes held up a van carrying cash in central New Delhi, shot a guard, and made off with the money. While familiar in many countries and a set-piece of Hollywood films, it set alarm bells ringing in India where gun crime and armed robbery is still low by the standards of other developing countries in Latin America or Africa. The daylight robbery in September and several mass shootings in the capital have made front-page news in recent weeks and led to renewed scrutiny of warnings from campaigners that a gun culture is gradually taking root. In the bank heist, ten people aged between 31 and 50 have since been arrested over the security guard's death and the theft of 52.5 million rupees ($960,000), much of which has been recovered. "These men wanted to break the class barrier and rise in life," Joint Police Commissioner Vivek Gogia told AFP. "The robbery was planned with help of an ex-employee who knew when large sums would be transported." In another recent incident, a 23-year-old shot dead his ex-girlfriend, her landlady and then drove to a city suburb to kill her father and sister before turning the gun on himself. A few days later, two friends went on a shooting rampage which left three women and two young girls dead. Figures for gun seizures in New Delhi show a rising trend in recent years. In 2009, police found 573 illegal weapons, in 2010 there were 634 and in 2011 the number reached 770. In the first nine months of this year, officers have already recovered 594. Some of them end up at the Forensic Science Laboratory in north Delhi, where a team of scientists investigates where they were made and tries to ascertain when they were fired. Deputy Director K.C. Varshney says a workload of shotguns, home-made pistols and sophisticated weapons is heavier than ever. "The number of firearms we are receiving is increasing every year," he told AFP. "Earlier we were receiving two to three firearms a day and now we are receiving four or five." The vast majority of guns in India are still crude weapons called "kattas" or "tamanchas" that are produced from scrap metal, mostly in the eastern states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. They sell for as little as 1,500 rupees. But several police officers told AFP they were increasingly worried about upskilling in these often rudimentary factories where more sophisticated pistols and even automatic weapons are now being manufactured. "Pistols before were simpler and fired only one bullet but the weapons we are recovering now are very sophisticated and four or five rounds can be fired one after the other. That is the change," said S.B.K. Singh, joint commissioner of New Delhi Police Crime Branch. Arun Bhagat, who formerly headed the New Delhi police department, believes modern and more deadly firearms belonging to Maoist insurgents called Naxals or Islamic militant groups are also finding their way to criminals. "Homemade weapons are easily available but of late sophisticated guns from the Naxals and militants are coming into the society," he said of the assault weapons which experts say are smuggled mainly from Pakistan and Nepal. The total number of weapons is difficult to pin down, but the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates India is home to 40 million civilian-owned firearms of an estimated 650 million worldwide. Only 6.3 million of them are legal. According to GunPolicy.org, a firearm prevention campaign forum, India holds the world's second largest civilian arsenal after the United States where the level stands at 270 million. Stringent licencing rules prohibit anyone below 21 and with a conviction for violence from possessing guns. Permit-seekers also face police screenings. But the easy access to homemade weapons means many do not bother with permits. India, for now, remains far safer than other developing countries with comparable income inequalities and senior police say gun crime is rising in only some areas and for certain crimes, such as robbery. Nationally, gun violence accounted for nine percent of the 241,986 crimes committed in 2010, according to official records. Data from 2009 shows 7.6 percent of all murders were committed with firearms in India, compared to 54.6 percent in Mexico and 76.7 percent in Jamaica, the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime says. But Binalakshmi Nepram, a gun-control activist from the insurgency-wracked state of Manipur, believes changes are underway driven by India's economic development which has made possessing guns a status symbols for some people. "In a rising India... people feel that they (ought to) own a car but now they should (also) have a gun as a status symbol. They're trying to ape the United States of America.") Nepram, who has addressed the UN General Assembly on gun violence, co-founded India's first civil society organisation to fight against the proliferation of weapons, called the Control Arms Foundation of India. The 2008 attack by 10 Pakistan-based gunmen in Mumbai which killed 166 people hammered home the carnage that can be wreaked by firearms. Others worry an increasing number of young Indians, more materialistic and less bound by caste restrictions than their parents, might be increasingly seeing firearms as a route to quick riches. In the Delhi bank heist, one of the arrested suspects was a 31-year-old son of a junior bank clerk whose dreams of wealth led him to plot the crime with the suspected mastermind during a stint in prison, police say.

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