Guns On Our Minds: In wake of Oct. 2 Las Vegas massacre, Indian-Americans mull 2nd Amendment right to bear arms

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Priscilla Olivas lights a candle at a street vigil along the Las Vegas Strip on Monday. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Salwan Georges

Ironic as it may be, it was a mere coincidence that the Las Vegas massacre that killed 58 people and injured more than 500 at a country-music concert, happened on the day the globally known father of nonviolence, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, was born – Oct. 2. Which may explain why Indian-Americans have the 2nd Amendment and gun rights on their minds days after the dust settled and as the investigation continues into the motives of the killer, and questions surface on whether he was a lone gunman like the one who killed Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948, or massacred the 6 Indian-Americans at a Wisconsin gurdwara in 2012.

News India Times spoke to a number of Indian-Americans who agreed it was time the community actively and visibly entered the grassroots debate over gun ownership despite its small size but legitimate stakeholder status affected by policy choices at the national level.

“We have always hotly debated on India and immigration issues, but not on issues that impact American lives,” one of them told News India Times not wanting to be identified, but echoing the general sentiment. While they have pronounced on this issue in the past, both as victims and as a member of the general public, the enormity of Las Vegas engendered emotional reactions, but nevertheless reactions that called for common sense to prevail.

Puneet Ahluwalia, the 10th District representative on the Virginia Republican State Central Committee, says the issue of gun ownership and gun regulations is a common-sense debate that cannot derail the right to bear arms guaranteed under the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution.

Ahluwalia owns a gun and he believes people should own one to protect themselves. “Guns are an important part of our lives and we should have them. But regulations should be there,” he told News IndiaTimes. “Things like Las Vegas disturb our American way of life,” he says, describing the killer Stephen Paddock, 64, as an “insane” man. People have described Las Vegas differently depending on their political beliefs, as domestic terrorism or the act of a mentally ill man.

“Its a common sense debate, and that includes background checks, and restricting semi-automatic or automatic guns to the armed forces,” says Ahluwalia. “We may say ‘we’re gonna take guns away …’ but how? What about the guns on the streets of Chicago or Washington, D.C.?” he questions, his voice rising with emotion.

Indian-American retail shop-owners and convenience store-owners would agree with the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms. They keep guns to protect themselves and their stores around the country, and are among the folk that daily face dangers merely from their choice of livelihood.

Suhag Shukla, legal counsel and co-founder of Hindu American Foundation found that out back in 2013 after the Sandy Hook massacre when 26 children and teachers were killed by a single shooter in Connecticut, and the faith community came together to urge President Obama to push for gun control legislation.

“It’s an emotional issue in the mainstream and also within the Indian-American community there are differences of opinion,” said Shukla. When HAF was involved in developing a response, Shukla remembers,”Retail store-owners said to us, ‘Listen, you don’t know what its like to be in the line of fire,’.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Dr. Vivek Murthy, who years before he became the U.S. Surgeon General, described gun violence as an epidemic and a “health issue.” It almost lost him the nomination for Surgeon General of the United States. After he was confirmed as Surgeon General, Murthy doubled down calling gun violence a “public health epidemic.”

A sign is pictured at a vigil on the Las Vegas strip following a mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Country Music Festival in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

“The statements I’ve made in the past about gun violence being a public health issue, I stand by those comments because they’re  a fact,” he told The Washington Post after taking office in December 2014. “They’re a fact that nearly every medical professional who’s ever cared for a patient can attest to.”

Scope of Issue

According to a Pew Research Center study, findings of which were released June 22, about 33 percent of Americans say they own guns; four-in-ten Americans say they either own a gun themselves or live in a household with guns; and 48% say they grew up in a household with guns, and at least two-thirds of adults say they’ve lived in a household with a gun at some point in their lives. Roughly seven-in-ten – including 55% of those who have never personally owned a gun – say they have fired a gun at some point.

From all accounts, this is a mainstream issue not easily shoved to the backburner, especially for Indian-Americans who have been victims of mass violence like the Aug. 5, 2012, attack on the Oak Creek gurdwara in Wisconsin; or even this Feb. 22 killing of a techie in Olathe, Kansas. Or going further back to Sept. 15, 2001, when an Indian-American in Arizona became the first victim of post-9/11 backlash.

The Pew study also revealed that Americans see many factors as playing a role in gun violence. Among all adults, 86% say the ease with which people can illegally obtain guns contributes a great deal or a fair amount to gun violence; 60% point to the ease with which people can legally obtain guns. On the other side of the coin, a significant share of Americans (44%) say they personally know someone who has been shot, either accidentally or intentionally.

Dr. Vivek Murthy, who called gun violence a ‘Public Health Issue’ in America even before he was appointed U.S. Surgeon General.

In the face of such numbers, Indian-Americans, being among the most highly educated, and among the highest-earning group in the country, could contribute to the debate. Virtually all those that News India Times spoke to dwelt on the daily gun violence that happens in the streets of Chicago and Washington, D.C., even as they are horrified by the Las Vegas massacre.

Common Sense

Their views mirror those of Americans for Responsible Solutions, an organization co-founded by Capt. Mark Kelly, husband of former Congresswoman Garry Giffords who survived a brain injury caused by a mass murderer while holding a public meeting.

The ARS in a survey released this April, found that 80 percent of gun owners support requiring a background check on all gun sales, including those sold online or at gun shows, while just 16 percent oppose them. 86 percent of gun owners support prohibiting anyone convicted of stalking or domestic abuse from buying a gun, and 85 percent of gun owners support prohibiting those on the federal terror watch list or no-fly lists from buying a gun. Furthermore, the survey found 73 percent of gun owners are more likely to support a candidate who supports background checks for all gun purchases, and 66 percent are more likely to support a candidate who supports gun violence prevention policies.

That puts the five Indian-Americans in Congress on the side of gun regulation, and mirroring the views most of the community holds. While gun-regulation is a highly divisive and politically partisan issue, it could be surmised that an overwhelming majority of Indian-Americans who happen to be Democrats, are for stricter gun-ownership regulations.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, the first Indian-American woman elected to the House of Representatives, said “Gun violence in this country is a public health crisis and we must do everything we can to address it,” mirroring the views of Dr. Murthy. ” “With rights come responsibilities: the responsibility to close the loopholes in who sells and gets guns,” Jayapal said, adding other protections for children and lowe-income families.

“Guns are the third-leading cause of death for children in America. Our kids and communities deserve better,” tweeted Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California. “No community should have to fear going to the movies, a concert, or dropping their child off at school,” said Rep. Ami Bera. ” In the wake of this tragedy, I hope we’ll all be able to take the time to look for the helpers and that each of us, in our own way, will seek to help our nation heal, move forward, and work to prevent similar tragedies.”In the wake of this tragedy, I hope we’ll all be able to take the time to look for the helpers and that each of us, in our own way, will seek to help our nation heal, move forward, and work to prevent similar tragedies,” Illinois Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi said in a statement.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, joined Sen. Dianne Feinstein Oct. 5, on legislation that would ban gun bump stocks, which were used by the gunman in Las Vegas, to turn his rifle into a quick-firing assault weapon. “Banning bump stocks is just common sense,” Harris said in a Facebook post. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle may favor this resolution as a stop-gap measure after Las Vegas and to bring around more constituents to their side.

Himsa & Ahimsa

The various faith groups that make up the Indian-American community are also for “common-sense” regulations on gun selling and ownership.

Following the 2013 Sandy Hook tragedy, the Hindu American Foundation outlined wrote to President Obama in a Jan. 9 2013 “Hindus affirm the inherent divinity of all beings and recognize that for the welfare of society, a balance is required between one’s individual rights, such as the desire to own a gun, and one’s responsibility to society, which may suffer as a result of gun violence,” HAF said. It talked of the ahimsa and himsa as part of every-day life and recommended some measures to counter gun violence.

Shukla put the onus on Congress to stop partisan politics and truly represent their constituents, a majority of whom she said, wanted stricter gun ownership laws. “There’s no question guns amplify the ability to do violence. Why would a civilian need a military-style weapon,” she questioned in her interview with News India Times. “If they are not able to come together for reasonable gun control, then Democracy on that front seems dead,” Shukla asserted.

After meals, the room is cleaned at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. the gurdwara where on Aug. 5, 2012, six people were massacred by a lone gunman. Photo: Lauren Justice for The Washington Post.

“We have taken a stand since Oak Creek and Sandy Hook and every tragedy that has hit — that gun ownership and control has to be revisited,” Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, and co-founder of the National Sikh Campaign told News India Times. “You can have 2nd Amendment rights, but in a common sense way,” he said, such as background checks, adequate resources for mental health services. As a faith community, we have a responsibility to speak on this. We feel it is our moral duty to be the voice of conscience and the rights of those affected,” he added.

It is not clear however, if the Las Vegas massacre is the “tipping point” for getting those common sense regulations, Singh said. “It’s like the smoking issue,” in some ways, where there was a point at which people began to see the dangers. “Advocacy groups have to step up their game,” Singh opined, asserting, “It’s no longer a recreation (to own and use guns), but an epidemic.”

“Las Vegas is an incident of domestic terrorism,” said Anju Bhargava, who said she was speaking in her personal capacity and not as a representative of the community service group Hindu Seva Communities, or her present occupation.  Bhargava was on the White House Inaugural Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (2009 – 2010) during the Obama presidency. Her views on guns, Bhargava said, were shaped by growing up in India despite having lived longer in the U.S. “I can’t get my head around owning guns. But in this country we have to come to terms that there will be guns. But one has to make enough change to moderate the harm,” Bhargava said. “Just like when Hindus get stuck with ‘parampara’, we have to re-evaluate tradition in the U.S. and re-evaluate and see the Constitution as a living document,” Bhargava contended, referring to the 2nd Amendment.

However, Judge R.K. Sandill of the 127th District Court in Harris County, Texas, says the 2nd Amendment is an integral part of American life, as one of the 20 amendments to the Bill of Rights. “It is one of those rights we will forever have. The question is how to deal with that right,” Sandill told News India Times. “Just as you are not allowed to yell “fire” in a crowded place to cause harm to others.” Living in Texas has made him relatively immune to the gun-owning culture and he understands if people from some other states that do not allow open-carrying may feel threatened or concerned.  But he knows several Indian-Americans who own guns and use them for recreational purposes. People coming from India, he said, quickly acclimatize to this different culture, he believes.

The 2nd Amendment “is reflective of our history and was meant to protect us against government tyranny,” Sandill said, “But the issue is with assault rifles etc. I don’t see a reason to have assault rifles.” Like Shukla, he believes the issue has to be left to legislators. First elected in 2008, Judge Sandill launched his campaign this August, for a seat on the Texas Supreme Court come November 2018.

“We have always worried about the tyranny of the majority, but is this a tyranny of the minority?” Sandill asks metaphorically.