GUN VIOLENCE & FREEDOM TO BEAR ARMS
A Sikh Perspective

THE TRIGGER & ITS SIKH CONNECTION

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.

OTHER RECENT INCIDENTS OF MASS SHOOTINGS

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.

GUN VIOLENCE & ADVOCACY

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.

GUN CONTROL ACTIVISM

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. http://pachurchesadvocacy.org/weblog/?p=1339
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 (http://www.childrensdefense.org/programs-campaigns/protect-children-not-guns/)?
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 CONTROL: STATUS & PROSPECTS

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.

TRACING BEARING OF ARMS IN SIKHI

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!

SIKH ETHOS SYMBOLISED BY KIRPAAN

Let us now try to specifically explore if the adoption of kirpaan as one of 5 k’s for the Khalsa observance signals its primacy as a weapon of choice for Sikh struggle or did kirpaan serve as an overt defining symbol of the Sikh resolve to use appropriate force to defend their-selves and help others defend their legitimate interests. For this once again we will draw upon the Sikh scriptural literature, history and tradition.
The word kirpaan is rooted in: kirpa - mercy, grace, compassion, kindness - and aan - honor, grace, dignity - i.e. honor and dignity through divine mercy. Significantly the word kirpaan does not occur in SGGS or the writings of Bhai Gurdas but it has been used hundreds of times in Dasam Granth. There are also a variety of other words used in the Sikh scriptural literature that translate as sword. Some examples are tegh, kharag, khanda, shamsheer, durga, baghauti, sri sahib, talwaar etc.
Compositions of Guru Nanak show the word sword used both as a weapon and as a metaphor for weapon. An example of the use of word for a weapon is when he says: When it pleases You, we wield the sword, and cut off the heads of our enemies. Like possession of weapons infuses a sense of power – the Guru says that ‘pursuit of virtue is my bow and arrow, quiver, sword and scabbard.’ Several verses metaphorically refer to the sword of spiritual wisdom that helps smooth out base instincts like desire and hope from the mind: Taking up the sword of spiritual wisdom, she struggles with her mind, and hope and desire are smoothed over in her mind.
If we look further we find that Guru Nanak has mentioned Babur’s use of cannons against the attacking elephant mounts of Lodhis: They [Mughals] took aim and fired their guns, and they [Lodhis] attacked with their elephants. Guru Arjan intent upon bringing home the need of skills and abilities to match ambitions, has questioned: Can they mount horses and handle guns if all they know is the game of horsemanship - suggestive of an ambition to be cavalry men among the elite. Bhai Gurdas, a contemporary of Guru Arjan and Guru Hargobind, in his Vaars has used the word khanday dhaar – edge of sword – as the path of the Guru: Moving on the way of Guru is like treading on the edge of sword. Sikh spirit is similarly likened to be subtler than a strand of hair and sharper than the edge of sword.
Guru Gobind Singh took the metaphors relating to weapons and arms to a great philosophical height. He was fond of arms and has fervently used the sword metaphor for the divine. In fact his compositions include a treatise called shastra naam maalaa that in its various sections gives the names and brief characters of a variety of weapons. The meters used by him impart almost military rhythm to the compositions praising the all powerful Akal Purkh or narrating various battle scenes. A verse in praise of arms says: I salute the arrow and gun. I salute the lustrous sword that is impenetrable and indestructible.
Guru Gobind Singh took part in battles where guns were used, some memorialized by him in Bachiter Natak. Witness: Alif Khan prepared a wooden fort of the hill of Navras. The hill-chief also prepared their arrows and guns. The Guru himself used bow and arrows, swords and even guns in fighting. Witness about use of gun: Then this lowly person (Guru himself) took up his gun and aimed unerringly at one of the chiefs. In another place he preferred to use the arrows over the gun: ‘I then threw away the gun and took the arrows in my hand, I shot four of them.’
While narrating the episode relating to the battle of Bhangani, the Guru says ‘filled with rage Hari Chand drew out his bow and shot his arrow which struck my horse. He aimed and shot the second arrow towards me but Lord protected me and his arrow only grazed my ear. Again the Lord saved his servant when his third arrow penetrated deep into the buckle of my waist-belt. Its edge touched my body, but did not cause a wound. When the edge of the arrow touched my body, it kindled my resentment. I raised the bow, aimed the arrow on a warrior, shot the arrow and killed him. When a volley of arrows was showered all the warriors fled. Hari Chand was killed and his brave soldiers were trampled. The chief of Kot Lehar was seized by death. Filled with fear all the hill-men fled from the battlefield. I gained victory through the favor of the Eternal One’. In essence the right to self defense is sacrosanct in a situation where hostility is thrust on you.
Zafarnamah, the missive of victory, addressed by Guru Gobind Singh to Emperor Aurangzeb clearly spells out the Sikh ethos on use of arms. In a related verse, the Guru asks Aurangzeb ‘what kind of chivalry is this in war that countless hosts should pounce upon just forty of us.’ (41) It was this that made him decide ‘perforce to join battle with your hosts and I too fought with arrows and muskets best as I could, because when a situation is past every other remedy it is righteous to unsheathe the sword to defend and dispel the aggressor (21-22).’ The Guru also asserts that ‘even as we fought we did not hurt or molest those who had not aggressed against us.’ (28) Clearly the phrase ‘unsheathing the sword’ has been used as expression for joining the battle for the Guru does say that he fought with muskets and arrows. The actual word used is ‘shamsheer’ – Persian for sword.
The above brief recapitulation would bring out that the word kirpaan implies its being both a weapon and an object of divine grace. Further the Sikh observance of carrying a kirpaan was intended to be symbolic of the sacred Khalsa initiatory vow to be prepared and willing to live by Sikh ethos that includes resisting societal ills, using any arms if all other means fail. The choice of weapons for the last resort armed struggle for survival, peace and justice by Sikhs was not confined to kirpaan only. Any and all weapons could be used. Gurus Hargobind and Gobind Singh did that and they did not place any restriction on Sikhs in that regard.
At Akal Takht, Takht Hazur Sahib and Takht Patna Sahib the historic relics belonging to the Gurus and other eminent Sikhs in history including kirpaans, khandas, spears, arrows, guns, and chakkars are ceremoniously shown to the congregation. Many Gurdwaras also symbolically place kirpaan in front of Guru Granth Sahib on lower ground. The devotees pay obeisance to Guru Granth Sahib and the shastras. Nihang Sikhs take pride in wearing their traditional martial regalia including the shastras to this day.


SIKH EXPERIENCE & USE OF ARMS

During the 18th century Sikh struggle, Banda Bahadur achieved tremendous victories and in a couple of years after the passing of Guru Gobind Singh was able to establish Sikh rule in a part of Punjab. His victories could be attributed to superior tactics, judicious use of forces and groundswell of support from the masses. They used all and every weapon they could obtain.
His rule was however short lived and he was eliminated in 1716. Sikhs took some time to get reorganized under very repressive conditions. The men took to hills and jungles while women tended to the families and the Gurdwaras were looked after by Udasis, an ascetic Sikh sect. Sikhs formed small but effective bands of troops, armed again with what they could get, and chose their battles judiciously in an unequal struggle. By 1765 control of Lahore and adjoining territories was in Sikh hands. By 1799 they were able to establish Sarkar-e-Khalsa [Rule of the Khalsa] under Ranjit Singh at Lahore encompassing, in time, the vast territories of West Punjab, NWFP & Kashmir. The empire was annexed by the British in 1849, 10 years after the death of Ranjit Singh.
The nature of insecurities faced by ordinary people changed under the British dispensation as the state took over increasing responsibilities for maintenance of law and order, Indian armed units were disbanded and possession of arms was controlled. Sikhs were able to continue with carrying of kirpaans as part of their religious observances and many were able to keep firearms under licenses – possibly given more easily to them because of their high presence in the military and police services, now recruited mainly from among martial races.
Significantly the two Sikh movements [Kuka and Gurdwara Reform] during a century under the British show Sikhs choosing exemplarily non violent courses even in the face of grave provocations. The Gurdwara Reform Movement is conceded as the first non violent protest that was carried through till the British yielded to the demands. Protesting Sikh volunteers did carry symbolic arms but stayed meticulously non violent; receiving grudging approbation by M K Gandhi and gushing praises from people like C F Andrews.
In the first 50 years in independent India once again the Sikhs experienced two phases of high insecurity. The first was in 1947 when the country was divided and in the ensuing riots Sikhs and Hindus were attacked by the Muslims in Pakistani areas, while the rest of India was busy celebrating the dawn of freedom. Muslims were likewise targeted by Sikh and Hindu mobs in Indian Punjab. There was complete breakdown of law enforcement machinery and the people had to defend for themselves. Sikhs with kirpaans and carrying spears and sticks were able to offer some protection to caravans of fleeing masses in the absence of any security cover and no doubt also used the same in revenge attacks on Muslims in Indian territories.

Soon after the partition, however, Sikhs started feeling that that they were not receiving fair treatment, leading to tension between Sikhs and Indian Central Government. The grievances of Sikhs included putting them within the Hindu pantheon in the new Constitution adopted in 1950. Later in 1956 Punjab was not reorganized on linguistic basis because Hindus disowned Punjabi as their tongue. Eventually a Punjabi state was ceded in 1966 but many contentious issues were left unresolved. In a climate of increasing polarization the Shiromani Akali Dal adopted Anandpur Sahib Resolution seeking devolution of more powers to the states. The Central Government responded by characterizing the Resolution as secessionist and went all out to stigmatize Sikhs as anti national in the state controlled media.
The ensuing tense political climate offered the opportunity for Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale to tap into the Sikh discontent. His rhetoric of defiance marginalized the political leaders as well as the Government. Diverse interest groups manipulated the unrest into a wave of killings of civilians as well as police that was attributed by the Indian government to Sikh militants. In a fast deteriorating environment Bhindranwale moved into the Golden Temple Complex in 1982 and a one-time prodigy of Congress, Bhindrawale became a challenge for Indira Gandhi who ordered the Indian Army to attack the Golden Temple Complex to neutralize him.
The assault made on June 6, 1984, the martyrdom day of Guru Arjan when the complex was filled with pilgrims, caused destruction of the Akal Takht, killing an unspecified number of Sikh worshippers and Gurdwara Clerics as well as Bhindranwale and his main associates who were well armed and fought back inflicting heavy casualties on army in close combat. In an extended and disorganized struggle, Sikhs in Punjab did not hesitate to resort to the use of any arms that they could lay their hands on. The loss of lives included thousands killed in the military assault, by acts of terror and in fake encounters by Police in a ruthless attempt to rein in lawlessness. Most of those killed were Sikhs.
Sikh resentment was running deep. Later that year, two Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi killed her on October 31, 1984. In an organized pogrom against Sikhs [in Delhi and several other places] that lasted for four days in Delhi and resulted in death of nearly 3,000 Sikhs, possession of kirpaans was of limited help in ensuring safety. Some Sikh Sikligar nomadic communities, who traditionally had been making and selling crude country made firearms, however were able to drive the armed intruders away with their weaponry in addition to kirpaans. Some of the well-to-do possessed licensed firearms. They were safe till they surrendered their arms to the police on the promise of safety but many were killed when the mobs returned and the police was not to be seen or just looked on without intervening.
Coming to the more recent, post Sep. 11 US happenings, the Sikhs have suffered most by the hate crimes including killings. I am not aware of a situation in the US where Sikhs have used kirpaans or other arms for defense or to drive away an imminent assailant even though they have made occasional news for using kirpaans over their internal fights within the Gurdwara precincts. Sikh response to violent attacks on their persons, places of worship or property has been non violent and they seem so far to have chosen to rely on the law enforcement agencies for their safety. It would be recalled that even in case of murders, the Sodhi family in Arizona and the Kaleka kids in Wisconsin have been pleading continuously for living in amity.

Sikhs also have worked with the security agencies to enable enforcement of enhanced check- ups for air safety including finding ways to meet the requirement of no knives or any such articles on person during flights. Sikh civil rights groups are engaged in resolving several cases to smoothen out the difficulties experienced by Sikhs because of enforcement of certain regulations that conflict with Sikh observances. Sikh advocacy has remained peaceful without any aggressive posturing or violent protests.

KIRPAAN & SIKHS IN US

This discussion would really not be complete without going into the experiences relating to the Sikh observance of kirpaan in the contemporary US setting. The position is that there is a conflict between American anti-weapons regulations and carrying of kirpaan by the Sikhs as a part of their religious observance. The Sikh Rehat Maryada prescribes that Sikhs wear a "strapped kirpaan," but does not specify length of the blade. Some Sikhs wear a small kirpaan pendant or medallion as a necklace. Typically the blade size of kirpaan ranges from 5 inches to over 3 feet. Traditionally kirpaan is kept sheathed except when drawn for religious services or to defend one-self or protect any others. Sikhs in the West presently wear kirpaans with a dull blade length of about 3.5 inches - some wearing it concealed under their clothes.
Canada and the UK legislations are relatively accommodative for the practice of carrying of kirpaan. Canadian Supreme Court has held in a case that prohibiting a student from carrying kirpan infringed on his religious freedom guaranteed by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms though it allowed the school districts to create reasonable restrictions on the use of this right. The British statute criminalizing possession of a blade or knife longer than three inches in a public place exempts if it is kept for religious reasons. Kirpan fits this exception.
But in the US, both in terms of tradition as well as law concealed carrying of dagger or sword clashes with the norms of life. No American jurisdiction exempts kirpan from weapons laws. A greater controversy arises when Sikh children wear kirpans to school.
The First Amendment provides for free exercise of religion. Supreme Court has interpreted it to imply protection of the right to believe in a faith and to act in accordance with that faith's beliefs, but its enforceability is considered uncertain. Only the following precedents seem to be helpful to the Sikh case for wearing of kirpan:
• In Cheema case Ninth Circuit affirmed compromise plan imposed by District Court limiting the length of kirpan, requiring the blade be dulled, tightly sewn to its sheath and worn underneath the clothing, and granting the school district the right to inspect the kirpan for compliance.
• The case against Dr. Harjinder Singh prosecuted under an Ohio concealed weapons law for carrying a kirpan was dropped because, despite evidence that kirpan could be used as a weapon, the Court agreed with the expert testimony that it was essentially a religious symbol to remind Sikhs of their obligations to do justice.
• Prosecutorial and judicial discretion insulated a kirpan wearing Sikh from prosecution in New York. He was arrested for possession of a knife in violation of the New York City administrative code but the court suggested that a kirpan be "encased in a solid protective element such as plastic or lucite" so that it would no longer be considered a knife or a weapon and sua sponte dismissed the prosecution in the interest of justice.
• The prosecution guidelines by District Attorney for Santa Clara County, CA state that the law criminalizes concealed possession of kirpan but if the kirpan cannot be easily removed from its sheath, if it is not capable of ready use, or if it is dulled or rounded such that it is incapable of inflicting great bodily injury or death, a Sikh carrying the kirpan does not violate the law.
These are band aid answers and really offer no abiding solution. Current First Amendment jurisprudence has failed to protect the Sikh population's right to carry a kirpan and though a kirpan perhaps falls within the definition of a weapon or arms, the limited scope of Second Amendment jurisprudence would certainly not create a right to carry a kirpan.
Workplace Religious Freedoms Act proposes to amend Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to incorporate religious accommodations into the workplace. So far it has not received much traction. A state version of the law has been adopted in CA in Sep. 2012.
Sikhs have looked to the courts and the constitution for vindication of their rights. This has given Sikhs some past successes through the free exercise clause of the First Amendment. However, the viability of prior successes is unlikely to guarantee future victories given the presently narrow interpretation of the free exercise clause.

POINTERS FROM SIKH EXAMPLE

My sense is that even though the Sikh example may seem atypical, it has some very pertinent parallels to our present difficulties with the rights under second amendment to bear arms and the example might suggest some pointers to craft answers to some of the vexing questions in the current US debate on guns and the prevalent climate of gun violence.
The Sikh example shows that Sikhs have followed a robust arms bearing tradition, The Gurus in fact placed a larger responsibility on the Sikhs i.e. not only to take personal responsibility for their lives and not blame any for their misfortunes but also to be prepared to make sacrifices for righteous values and help protect the just rights of others. This broad objective possibly should resonate with the variety of eventualities that the founding fathers may have had in mind when setting out the second amendment right to bear arms.
In those times when Gurbani, the principles of miri-piri, the order of Khalsa, or Zafarnama were revealed, the aim of Sikh transformation was clearly defined but the praxis developed along a twin track. One was that initiation rites were administered to volunteers who could be trusted to live by the Khalsa ethic to always be in possession of a kirpaan, wear it openly and be prepared to use it for righteous causes including making needed sacrifices. There has been no change to this part of praxis with times.

The other was that in self defense or in pursuit of righteous causes, recourse to use of arms is legitimate, other means failing. This essentially meant a response appropriate to help achieve success with the caveat of keeping the safety of innocents paramount. This part of praxis has been in dynamic sync with the times in that while Sikhs have loyally upheld the kirpaan as symbolic of their beliefs, they have not hesitated to take to the emerging generations of more effective arms for their security needs or to support pursuit of objectives considered by them to be legitimate and crucial for their survival.
In that backdrop, if we were to extend the Sikh example to the contemporaneous US situation on the second amendment issues, some ideas that suggest are:
• Sikhs have a strong tradition of bearing arms and espousing freedom of individuals to make their own choices and take responsibility for them. Sikhs therefore support this right under the second amendment.
• The right of the individual for self defense is paramount. No state should expect or ask its citizens to not keep or use arms for legitimate security needs. Even though the rulers at the time prohibited non Muslims from carrying arms, Sikhs did not adhere to various prohibitions imposed. Sikhs however did not understand their religious edicts to imply that they had an unrestricted right to maintain cachet of most modern fire arms in their homes for their safety or to keep their vow to defend righteousness.
• The question about who can or cannot bear arms is an important question. The Sikh practice regarding administration of amrit stipulates that the individual, who receives amrit and is thus admitted to the kirpaan donning Khalsa order, must be deemed capable of living by the Khalsa ethic. This suggests that some qualification criteria for possession of lethal fire arms are a necessity.
• Freedom to bear arms should be tempered with credible controls to avoid arms falling into wrong hands and being used to attack and kill innocents. This should be a shared moral responsibility of all interest groups as we seem to be nurturing a generation of youth who, influenced by popular culture of glorification of violence fall in love with their own visions of power of arms and may not stop at anything to taste the enormity of such power by using guns to play out in the raw to their maximum destructive effect. Parents, families and the schools should be helped in this effort to nurture the potentially errant children back onto the correct path.
• The conversations on these issues must be moved from strong espousal of ideological positions to the plane of larger good of the community by all interest groups. While the communities and citizens look at the what they can do, the governments at all the levels should come up with their proposals to keep lethal arms out of reach of gangs of organized crime, criminals, terrorists, extremists, supremacists, hate groups, mentally disturbed and the like.
• Citizens should be encouraged to learn the use of weapons like knives for their safety and security in less threatening situations and related laws should be considered for review along with the measures for gun control.
• The Sikh example could be used as a case to promote community based compromise practices that best serve the imminent security needs of the vulnerable among us in a manner sensitive to contemporaneous needs and the diversity of visions on individual freedoms, societal relations, constitutional rights and governmental controls.


CONCLUDING

The above short paper briefly reviews the current debate in the US over the issues arising out of recent incidents of mass killings involving guns. It also provides a synoptic view of how a robust tradition of bearing of arms developed among Sikhs and explores the Sikh position on various issues and proposals in the contemporary debate in the light of Sikh theology, praxis, tradition and history. The search revealed that the mix of concepts and circumstantial factors that influenced the emergence of this tradition as central to tenets of the Sikh faith and as a component of early American quest for individual freedom have some striking similarities. While the paper does not make any attempt to juxtapose the likely parallels, it takes comfort that given certain congruities both in terms of the historical times and aspirations of the two peoples separated by thousands of miles across the globe, the Sikh example may have some relevance to our current situation even though the trajectory of development of the tradition to bear arms among Sikhs has been along a different set of paths. Our plea to the reader, made in all humility, therefore is to look at the related Sikh thought and experience with a view to identify any possible attenuations to our approaches that might help us as a nation to better temper our present practices on this difficult subject.
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27 January, 2013 Revised/edited: 15 April, 2013

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