LAHORE: When it comes to gun-crazy nations, Pakistan may not be on the same level as the United States but it is not that far behind either.
The Small Arms Survey estimated there to be nearly 44 million civilian-held firearms in Pakistan in 2017 or roughly 22 guns for every 100 citizens. Compared to the rest of the world, it ranked the country at number four in terms of total civilian-owned guns and number 20 when comparing that number against its population.
Given these figures, many may have breathed a sigh of relief when the federal government restricted the import of firearms four-years ago. However, far from making the country any safer, the ban has led to a staggering rise in the sale of smuggled weapons, many of which use prohibited bores and modes of operation.
An industry worth billions
Speaking to The Express Tribune, sources in the interior ministry and the All Pakistan Arms and Ammunition Dealers Association (APAADA) estimated that illegal arms worth between Rs3 billion and Rs4 billion have been smuggled into the country every year since the ban has been in effect.
“For both hunting and self-defence, Pakistani gun-owners have generally preferred foreign-made firearms over those built locally,” an APAADA member said on condition of anonymity. “This was true before the ban took effect and before the war on terror disrupted the local firearms industry in Khyber-Pakthunkhwa.”
According to him, a number of factors have contributed to the rise in smuggling of firearms. “There are, of course, quality issues with many locally-manufactured firearms. Some of these issues were a constant feature, but others have been caused by more recent problems the industry has run into.”
The APAADA member said that local manufacturers no longer have access to high-standard raw materials they once used. “They have also run into financial problems due to diminishing sales and the ban on issuance of new weapons licenses.”
“These issues have driven as many as 1,700 arms and ammunition stores and more than 80 factories across the country out of business in the past few months,” he added. “Only 900 of K-P’s 2,000 shops are currently open. In Sindh, only 240 out of 450 remain in business while in Punjab, 275 out of 460 have managed to stay afloat.”
However, the ban on new weapons licenses has not only made life difficult for firearms and ammunitions vendors. The APAADA member pointed out that it was also driving up demand for smuggled weaponry. “Because it is impossible for would be gun owners to purchase a firearm legally, it makes them more amenable to purchase an illegal one.”
He added that many existing owners have also resorted to purchasing illegal arms due to the ban on new licenses. “They buy a smuggled weapon, remove original manufacturer and batch number information from it and replace it with credentials mentioned on their existing licenses.”
According to Punjab home department officials, they and the National Database and Registration Authority recently unearthed a ring comprising members of their own staff which had issued more than 4,000 fake licenses and permits.
The tiff behind the ban
Before the ban was imposed in 2015, Pakistan annual weapons imports exceed Rs5 billion. According to an interior ministry official, the imports were allowing the government to draw in significant exchequer through the significant taxes and duties imposed on firearms.
But while there have been plans to remove the ban on imports a few times in the past, it has largely remained in effect all these years due to a tussle between the ministries of interior and commerce, the official told The Express Tribune.
“Before the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government came into power, the interior ministry tried to introduce a new statutory regulatory order (SRO) that would allow weapons imports to resume,” he said. “Before it could be implemented, the ministry held a meeting attended by the chief secretaries of all four provinces as well as representatives from the commerce ministry. It was the latter who objected to the interior ministry’s role in such a step and led to the move being scuttled indefinitely.”
Arms and ammunitions dealers have also accused an additional secretary of Punjab of creating unnecessary hindrances as well.