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Gun culture on the rise among Indian Americans

Last updated on: June 11, 2009 15:48 IST

From being the victim to becoming the aggressor, Indians are fast changing from a peace-loving community to a gun-toting one. Many Indian Americans are now taking advantage of the lax gun-control laws in the United States and buying firearms for protection.


However, these guns have also been used for chilling purposes like settling personal scores or ending one's life. In the first part of a series, rediff India Abroad focuses on the rising trend of gun culture among Indian Americans and its immediate ramifications.

In May, US witnessed as many as eight massacres across the country, which claimed 57 lives. Guns were the weapons of murder in each case.

Santa Clara, California was where Devan Kalathat, 36, an engineer with Yahoo, killed his two children and three members of his family. The police ruled out financial issues and are awaiting answers from his wife Aabha, who was seriously injured in the shootout and is still recovering. Kalathat bought two semi-automatic guns a month before and was ready with ammunition that fateful day.

Last November, Sanish Joseph Pallippurath, 27, traveled from Sacramento, California, with two guns in his vehicle, to confront his estranged wife Reshma, 25, who had moved in with an aunt on the East coast. He found her in the St Thomas Knanaya Church in Clifton, New Jersey. He opened fire on her inside the church, during mass, killing her and Dennis John, a young man who came forward to help. Reshma's aunt Suja Alummoottil miraculously survived the shooting but now lives with the bullet(s) in her head.

A month before that, the body of 45-year-old Karthik Rajaram, a gun clutched in one hand, was found by police officers investigating a trail of carnage through a Porter Ranch home in the San Fernando Valley, California. The police, summoned by worried family friends, found five members of the family shot dead by an unemployed Rajaram, who was facing financial crisis. The victims, who were slain in their beds, were his wife, his three sons and his mother-in-law.

Like Kalathat, Rajaram held a master's degree and once worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers, a major accounting firm, and for Sony Pictures. But he had been unemployed for several months and his finances had reached a crisis point.

Rajaram wrote in his suicide letter that he felt he had two options -- to kill himself or to kill himself and his family. He decided the second option was more honourable. The gun was purchased a month before the incident. Rajaram had no record of mental disabilities nor had he made contact with mental health professionals. Like Kalathat, Rajaram had recently sold his home and moved to a rented house.

As the economy started its meltdown, depression grew and despair has set in for many. Some ended up killing themselves and their families. Mental health hotlines are being flooded with calls.

"I've never seen such a large number [of killings] over such a short period of time involving so many victims," criminologist Jack Levin told The Washington Post.

"There's a combination of feeling despair and hopelessness at the same time as a certain degree of anger and blame," another criminologist, James Alan Fox, told the Post.

Some predict there will be more mass murders as the recession continues.

Too easily available guns have always played a critical role in escalating crime in the US. Indian Americans too are becoming part of this trend and are buying weapons.

As the gun culture finds a toehold in even the Indian-American community, its members are not ready to confront the reality or even challenge the myths that surround our label as peace-loving people. Further, bizarre gun massacres may perhaps be a sign that the community is loathe to seek help or counseling even in dire circumstances.

Many Indian Americans buy and carry guns out of necessity. Others buy it with the view to having another fancy possession. But when you have a gun in your hands, the temptation to use it also goes up, police and other experts warn.

"Neither buy nor carry a gun. It will not protect you," is the advice of many Indian-American police officers in various cities to the community.

"I will not carry a gun, 90 per cent of the time, even though I am permitted to carry a gun at all times anywhere in the US," says Sergeant Tomi Methipara, the first Indian to join the Chicago Police Department.

Muzzafar Siddiqui of the Houston Police Department narrates another incident indicating why Indian Americans are not cut out to carry or use guns.  He recalls how after several robberies at his store, an Indian-American shop owner decided to purchase a gun.

Subsequently a young man came into his store as a customer, pointed a gun at the owner and his employees, ordered them to lie down and took the cash. As he moved back, still pointing his gun, the shop owner succeeded in grabbing his gun at the last minute and shot the fleeing thief dead.

When the police arrived on the scene, the store owner was crying inconsolably. Siddiqui recalls he kept lamenting, "He was of the same age as my son. Yet I killed him."

The local police backed the shop owner's action since it is legal to use a firearm to protect one's property in Texas. But the shop owner found it hard to overcome and live with his remorse.

But while it is okay to wield a gun in protection of yourself or your property in Texas, it may not be the same in other states.

Last year, a Harris County Texas jury found Hardeep Grewal -- who was accused of killing Nitin 'Nathan' Sarangapani, a 24-year-old Marine reservist in 2005 -- not guilty of murder. Grewal, an engineer, claimed he acted in self defence when he shot Sarangapani, who was dating his daughter.

Sarangapani died on his birthday, a little after midnight. He was hosting a birthday party and witnesses told the court that Sarangapani had been drinking for hours. He and his girlfriend had an argument at the party. The girlfriend testified that Sarangapani was angry when she asked him to take her home. Another witness said Sarangapani called the Grewals after he dropped her off. After the call Sarangapani appeared in front of the Grewals' home, police said.

Grewal told the jury that he was protecting himself when he opened fire in the dark outside his home, striking Sarangapani once in the chest.

Grewal apologised for the shooting. During the trial, he said he grieved much for the loss of life. Grewal told the court that there had been no electricity that day because of Hurricane Rita and he was worried about looters, when he saw a man yelling in front of his home. He appeared to point something at him.

Grewal said he fired a warning shot from the second-story balcony of his home, climbed down and fired two more warning shots with his AK-47 rifle. Before that he called 911.

"The gun is not always the culprit. Criminals who want to commit murders will do it even if they had no access to guns," says Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the National Rifles Association, the most powerful advocacy group in the country.

Manohar Thomas, who owns two liquor shops in Staten Island, New York, does not agree with police officers Siddiqui and Methipara. He says he took a gun license after several robbery attempts. "Four or five young men will come to a store pretending to buy liquor. One will come forward and speak to the owner/salesman and others will pick up expensive liquor and run away without paying," he says.

So Thomas decided to apply for a gun license and got it the next day. The police understand the problems faced by liquor shops quite well, he says. He keeps the semi-automatic rifle -- that he bought for $3,800 -- under his coat, partially visible to those who look carefully, so that youngsters who come to rob can assess the situation. When they realise the owner has a gun they signal to their team to flee.

He says thieves are invariably well-equipped with weapons, usually guns. "And unlike us, they have no hesitation in using them. So if a business owner feels threatened, it is better that he uses it before the other guy uses it. We have much hesitation to use guns, but these youngsters live with guns always and for them it is like another toy."

Thomas says if a store owner shows he is weak, news spreads among these gangs of armed robbers and they will certainly rob that store. "We are afraid of carrying a gun, fearing the laws, in case if we are forced to use it. But we need to fear the laws only if we are alive."

Like many Texan women, Aleyamma Mathews is the proud owner of a Lady Smith handgun for more than two decades. She says she felt safe with it when she was alone at home. She paid about $200 to buy it, then, and went to classes to learn to shoot. She has not had to use it.

Her husband, who lived in New Jersey for many years, says he tried to buy a gun there several times. But the police would not allow him, saying he did not require it. In New York too, especially in the city, the laws are more stringent. But it is easy to buy guns illegally or from the occasional gun exhibitions, where background checking is minimum.

Nationally about 350,000 firearm-related murders, robberies, and aggravated assaults occur yearly, according to Federal Bureau of Investigation statistics. In the vast majority of defensive uses, the victim simply brandishes the gun and the offender leaves -- which is why one rarely hears about such incidents, explains Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck. 

George Joseph