A Sikh Perspective


The run up to the 2012 US Presidential election was greatly instrumental in sharpening the competing visions of future America by the two main political parties and even though the people gave a clear endorsement for Obama, they in their characteristic wisdom seem to have left the control of Congress divided between the warring parties. This has set the stage for a continuing contest of visions on all important national issues.
In this environment, the tragic deaths of twenty school children in Newtown, CT, in a mass shooting on December 14, 2012 by a youth brought the gun control issue once again to the center of political debate in the US. The facts of the case, as known, are that the killer, Adam Lanza, 20, lived with his divorced mother and is reported to have used the licensed weapons kept by her at home to kill her and then repair to the Sandy Hook Elementary School to gun down twenty 6 to 7 year old toddlers plus some of the teachers at the school before taking his own life.
Lanza was wearing black clothing, earplugs and an olive green utility vest as he shot his way through a locked glass door at the school using his mother's .223 Bushmaster XM-15 assault rifle equipped with a 30-round ammunition magazine. His motives are not clear but there is speculation that, as a loner youth from a broken home, he could have accumulated a lot of pent up emotion seeking violent expression. He was not on drugs or connected to any gang or extremist group. He killed his mother and used the weapons acquired legally by her and kept at home to carry out his nefarious design.
The shocked nation looked for some concrete steps to avoid recurrence of such violence and killing of innocent children. President Obama vowed to initiate appropriate measures and set up a task force under Vice President Joe Biden to suggest measures for Gun Control. At the Capitol Hill, Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation for imposing ban on certain types of assault weapons. The NRA declared that they were receptive to background checks and conversation on issues of school safety, mental health, marketing of violence to kids and failures of federal prosecutions of violent criminals.
The American Sikh community has a stake in this subject because for several years now they have been the subject of hate crimes and random killings mostly explained away as ‘mistaken identity’ offences by the investigating agencies and the media. Sikhs therefore want to bring their view points to Public attention as also to the notice of those charged with the task of sifting through and influencing the action choices in the crafting any corrective measures. This paper is intended to present the Sikh perspective on this complex and vexing issue.


On August 5, 2012, the Sikh community was traumatized when six worshippers at the Gurdwara in Oak Creek, WI, were gunned down by one Wade Michael Page, reported to be a veteran connected to a white supremacist group. There is no evidence to suggest that he had any specific anger against the Sikhs. He was armed with a Springfield XD (M) 9-millimeter semi-automatic pistol equipped with a 19-round ammunition magazine legally purchased by him in Wisconsin. The investigation is being treated as a possible act of domestic terrorism.
Another case of mass killings happened on July 20, 2012, in a movie theatre in Aurora, CO, screening a midnight premiere, when the alleged shooter James Holmes entered clad in body armor and wearing a gas mask. He tossed tear gas canisters into the theater and began firing upon the audience using an AR-15 assault rifle equipped with a 100-round magazine. After the assault rifle jammed, he continued with a 12-gauge shotgun--killing 12 and wounding 58. Holmes had purchased the weapons and 6,000-rounds ammunition at gun shops and over the Internet. In addition he had heavily booby-trapped his apartment to detonate plastic shells and several glass jars filled with gasoline and gunpowder. He was apprehended by the police. He faces a minimum of life imprisonment and a maximum of death if convicted.
In Albuquerque, NM on 19 Jan. 2013, Nehemiah Griego, 15, is reported to have shot his mother while asleep and then his kid brother and two younger sisters. Later when his father, former Calvary Church pastor and chaplain at a local jail, returned home from his night shift, Nehemiah shot him using an AR 15 rifle. The weapons used were stolen from the family closet. Nehemiah was very fond of violent video games and is reported to have sent a picture of his dead mother to his 12 year old girl friend. He spent the day with his girl friend and the pair drove to Calvary Church around 8 p.m. where Nehemiah said his family had died in a car crash. Someone from the church then called 911.


The American Constitution allows its citizens the right to bear arms. This partly is attributed to the historical necessity when the frontier settlers had to often assume responsibility to self-protect and guard frontiers. The right to own guns became a strong part of their ‘free people’ identity, especially in the West and South.
Another stereotype is that of gun ownership and culture of violence coming together in a so-called ‘redneck’. This stereotypical view is widely shared in metropolitan cities of America, North-Eastern states and parts of West Coast.
There is a subterranean layer of others who contribute significantly to the violent use of guns in the American society. These include networks of organized crime, drug dealers, terrorists, supremacists et al plus various hues of criminals and mentally instable persons – all enabled by easy availability of guns to engage in their violent pursuits with relative ease.
An emerging group of violence prone persons is youth who unbeknown to others harbor a fascination for violent act as an end in itself. People around them cannot anticipate that they can commit acts of unprovoked, meticulously planned, ruthless violence. They seem to thrive in anonymity and possibly are emotionally deprived, vulnerable to get carried away by their misplaced urges – the Holmes’s, Lanza’s, Griego’s, in our narration above.
Possession of fire arms in the US has been relatively easy. Guns have also been the preferred means of committing most violent acts. There were15, 953 murders in 2011 including 11,101 caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings by guns account for another 20,000 deaths each year. Concern for controlling gun violence therefore seems legitimate especially since mass shootings occur in all regions.


The Gun Control activism is driven by a variety of interest groups that includes civil liberty groups, religious organizations like churches and interfaith groups, medical and mental health groups, women’s associations, groups engaged with children’s issues, peace activists and the like. The interest in the subject therefore is spread across the entire social fabric and is driven by a variety of safety concerns as well as ideological positions.
With such diverse mix, the approaches and the metaphors that various protagonists may use can be very interesting as will be seen from extracts of a recent write up for a church group : ‘Back in 1990, the Presbyterian Church issued this warning: “The religious community must --- take seriously the risk of idolatry that could result from an unwarranted fascination with guns, which overlooks or ignores the social consequences of their misuse.” Two decades later --- too many, guns have become idols --- An idol’s followers boldly claim divine status for it. --- Charlton Heston, during a speech as NRA president, intoned, “Sacred stuff resides in that wooden stock and blued steel --- when ordinary hands can possess such an extraordinary instrument that symbolizes the full measure of human dignity and liberty.”’
The following news and action summary issued by Reverend Sandy Strauss, PA Council of Churches Advocacy Ministry, on 15 January 2013 is an example of gun control advocacy by Church Groups:
1. Protecting our children is our highest priority, but putting more armed police in schools doesn't make them safer. Please sign the petition to say NO to the NRA proposal for more armed guards in our children's schools.
2. The Children’s Defense Fund is partnering with a wide spectrum of faith communities to protect children from gun violence. During the weekend of January 18 – 20, we encourage you to focus on ending gun violence and keeping children safe in your prayers, service, education programs, and advocacy activities. Will you please join us (
3. Day of Action on Gun Violence—January 23, Harrisburg: Thank you for joining with people of faith across America to stand up and speak out from our places of worship to demand that we protect children, not guns.

The arguments proffered by those for gun control and those who oppose controls are found to be mostly along the following lines:
For Gun Control
• United States tops all countries in firearms related deaths. This calls for stricter norms to prevent abuse of firearms and improve safety of individuals from firearm related accidents.
• Gun control laws should ensure that the guns don't land in wrong hands, are kept out of reach of minors, mentally disturbed persons or individuals with suicidal tendencies.
• The laws should require universal background checks and ensure security of weapons from being stolen and used for criminal acts.
• To control incidents of mass killings, assault weapons and large capacity magazines should be banned.
• Why don’t such killings happen in Canada?
Against Gun Control
• Self defense is a right of all citizens. Law abiding citizens must be able to protect themselves even up-till Police arrives.
• With a thriving black market in guns and firearms, access to guns by criminals and terrorists cannot be controlled by Gun control laws.
• Sandy Hook School killings could not have been avoided through Gun control laws as Lanza killed his mother and used her legally acquired weapons for his criminal attack.
• States that allow its people the right to carry guns have the lowest violent crime rate in the country.
• A standalone assault weapons ban will not change culture of mass violence. It needs a comprehensive approach including mental health screenings and controlling violence inducing movie and video game industry.
• British gun laws are among the toughest in the world. Yet these laws have not been able to prevent mass killings.


Gun issues vary from locale to locale. A ban imposed in 1994 on semi-automatic weapons during the Clinton administration had expired in 2004. After the CT shooting, gun control advocates are asking for the ban to be reinstated.
While the Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation for the ban in late December 2012, on 16 Jan, 2013 President Obama signed 23 executive actions to curb gun violence. While he reaffirmed his support for the Second Amendment rights, he urged the Congress to reinstate the ban on high-grade guns, devise effective measures to prevent manufacturers circumvent prohibitions by making cosmetic changes to banned guns, require universal background checks and limit the high-capacity magazines to 10 rounds. He also asked the Centers for Disease Control to study links between violent images in video games and movies and ordered more federal data to be made available for background checks.
Key congressional leaders were tepid in their response to the White House plan to tighten gun laws. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he is committed to ensure that the Senate will consider gun violence but did not endorse any specific proposal. Speaker John Boehner's office signaled that if the Senate passes a bill, they will take a look at that. Absent action by Congress, the 23 executive orders by the President will apply only to federal agencies and not local or state law enforcement.
The fact is that many of the lawmen and lawmakers at state and local levels are votaries of gun ownership and may ignore any restrictions in their jurisdictions. It is also speculated that the ban may not survive a reference to the Supreme Court since a majority of the justices had ruled in a recent decision that the government cannot ban an entire class of weapons that are commonly used by law abiding gun owners for legitimate reasons, such as self defense.
The road ahead is not clear. However if there's a conflict between a state law and a federal law, the federal law is supreme but if the law conflicts with constitution, Supremacy Clause of the Constitution renders it unconstitutional.


Sikhs as a faith group have a strong tradition of bearing arms in the form of kirpaan, sword. Kirpaan has been associated with certain rituals and also forms a visible part of the imagery in a Gurdwara. The ostensible purpose of carrying kirpaan was for self defense and to extend support to any who may need help. This Sikh position is founded in their theology and borne out by tradition as well as history. We will briefly recapitulate its development.
Sikhs are persuaded to live their life in the real world as responsible householders who cope with the alluring as well as grim realities of human existence. Comments on the desiderata for a righteous, just and egalitarian social order therefore, though dispersed, are clear and direct in the Sikh thought.
During the times of Gurus [1469-1708 C.E.], Punjab was ruled from Delhi. The regimes at Delhi were mostly stable and strong, but the crown satraps invariably were capricious and a corrupt nexus between the local chiefs, officials and religious leaders denied the common people both basic freedoms and a feel of sense of security and justice. In this environment a culture of sycophancy, hypocrisy, servility and conformity with the ruling elite prevailed and corruption reigned rampant. Foreign intrusions often in collusion with disaffected chiefs were another threat to security of the public.
Guru Nanak raised his voice against the entrenched inequalities in the society based on caste, sex, religion et al and the injustices perpetrated on the people by the officials. He was witness to the invasion of Babur and has characterized the invading Mughals as having been sent by God to punish the ruling Lodhis for their fall. He also says that when God’s will is to destroy any, he takes away the goodness in them. At the same time he likens the punishing Mughals to a bridal party of sinners who indulge in rape and ravine. In this paradoxical scenario of an evil punishing another evil, the Guru chides God for not showing compassion when suffering innocents screamed in pain and ponders that the all powerful God who attached mortals to the worldly allurements, sits alone and watches on.
Yet Nanak has full and firm belief that God is just and the divine intent is for good of all. His message, though unsaid, is obvious – the ills of society have to be corrected by the humans individually and collectively. This paradigm envisions an ideal of societal transformation that is catalyzed by individual struggle to wrestle with and win over evil propensities. The internal change inspires the individual to try to create a society where the exemplars lead in a spirit of service with humility and modesty. This sets new markers for transformation of societal ills. The Gurus also clearly advises people to not blame others for the good or bad that is received is only what was earned by their actions.
The Gurus recognized that sacrifices could be needed for resisting evil and pursuit of struggle for righteousness to prevail. Sikhs were told to neither live in fear nor cause others to be afraid but seek the boon that they shy not from righteous action, stay determined to right the wrongs, fight to win. Gurus also cautioned their followers to tread the path of Sikhi if they were prepared to give up life without demur and understand that giving up life for a worthy cause is approved - recognition that choice of martyrdom as an efficacious tool of non violent protest is commended in Sikhi.
Martyrdom of Guru Arjan affected Sikhs deeply. His successor Guru Hargobind put aside the traditional robe, donned two swords symbolizing of Miri and Piri - sovereignty and spiritual eminence – and adopted aigrette - both manifesting fearlessness and non-conformity that the Sikhs cherished but were not permitted for non-Muslims. Miri Piri has been explained in A New Dictionary of Religions [Blackwell] thus: ‘At his accession the sixth Sikh Guru Hargobind (1606–44) is believed to have donned two swords, one representing the spiritual authority of his predecessors (piri) and the other his newly assumed temporal authority (miri). This belief, together with the creation of the Khalsa in 1699, justifies the Sikhs’ fight for justice and (in extreme cases) the use of weapons.’
Sikhs were infused with a new sense of vigor and resurgent confidence in themselves. The Guru maintained armed horse cavalry and gunners who effectively defended Sikhs in some skirmishes when agents of the ruling elite tried to continue with their disruptive intrusions. Bhai Gurdas praises Guru Hargobind as brave and benevolent vanquisher of armies. This was the beginning of Sikhs taking to the tradition of bearing arms and regalia associated with sovereignty – each Sikh a sovereign, created free, bowing not to any temporal authority but only to the one divine power and the Guru.
A second Guru martyrdom of the ninth Master, led Guru Gobind Singh to formalize the Sikh vision of sovereign connection by establishing the order of Khalsa, making wearing of sword a part of Khalsa observances - popularly known as 5 k’s [kes - unshorn hair, kanghaa - comb, karraa -steel bracelet, kachhaa - long drawers & kirpaan – a name for sword in Punjabi]. The word Khalsa was the term used for lands directly controlled by the crown. The choice of the word was significant for the Khalsa was also dubbed akal purkh ki fauj – God’s own army – answerable directly to that timeless divine power!

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