For Middle-Class Pakistanis, a Gun Is a Must-Have Accessory
With Kidnappings and Violence on the Rise, Demand for Weapons Permits Grows
By PETER WONACOTT
LAHORE, Pakistan -- After escaping kidnappers who chained him to a bed for 25 days, Mohammad Javed Afridi pressed Pakistani law enforcement for swift justice. The police offered him something else: temporary permits for four automatic assault rifles.
Since Mr. Afridi's ordeal ended in mid-October, police in his hometown of Peshawar, in northwestern Pakistan, haven't made an arrest in his case. They raided the kidnappers' hide-out, but the captors got away, a senior Peshawar police official says.
So the cops allowed Mr. Afridi to arm himself against future abductions. The 35-year-old journalist now carries an AK-47 to work and back home to his wife and five children. Relatives rotate duty as his bodyguards. If his car is again stopped by armed men on a dark road, Mr. Afridi vows to shoot first.
"I'm not going through that again," he said in an interview in this city in northeastern Pakistan.
Guns have long been part of Pakistan's traditional culture, especially in the rugged northwestern part of the country. Handed down through generations, rifles have been used for hunting and for firing celebratory fusillades. Now, however, modern assault rifles and handguns have come into vogue among middle-class Pakistanis, and gun registration has jumped.
This proliferation reflects many urbanites' dwindling faith that the country's new civilian government can protect them. Over the past year, Pakistan has endured the assassination of popular political leader Benazir Bhutto, a spreading Islamist insurgency and the bombing of Islamabad's Marriott Hotel. November's deadly terror attacks in Mumbai, allegedly carried out by 10 Pakistani militants trained here, further frayed nerves.
But more than heightened terrorist threats, many Pakistanis fear the surge in violent kidnappings, extortions and robberies that target those who look like they might have money. The 11,758 murders recorded in the first 11 months of 2008 were the highest in Pakistan in at least a decade, say Islamabad police, who compile nationwide crime statistics.
"People buy weapons because they're insecure," said a senior Interior Ministry official. "No need denying it."
Arms licenses are issued by numerous Pakistani agencies. Local authorities and police hand out permits for weapons that can be used only within their states. The Interior Ministry licenses nonautomatic weapons that can be carried across borders between Pakistan's states. The prime minister's office gives clearance for automatic assault weapons that can be used throughout the country.
Firearm licenses issued by the Interior Ministry rose sharply in 2008. Licenses for 12-gauge pump-action shotguns, used by private security guards and also duck hunters, more than doubled over 2007, according to ministry figures compiled through year's end. Over the same period, the ministry granted 47% more licenses for 30-bore pistols and 53% more for 9mm handguns.
Pakistani police in July with arms and ammunitions seized in Karachi. Rising violence has prompted many middle-class families in Pakistan to seek weapons permits.
The ministry's chief spokesman didn't respond to requests for comment about the surge in gun licenses.
Some middle-class Pakistanis have appealed to politicians for help in obtaining licenses. On a recent morning at the Interior Ministry's Arms License Issuance Center in Islamabad, a scrum of applicants waved papers in clerks' impassive faces. One man carried a letter from a member of Pakistan's National Assembly, the country's top lawmaking body, asking that officials facilitate shotgun and pistol licenses for nine of his supporters.
Others say the government isn't doing enough to get arms in the hands of those who need them. "Criminals don't have licenses, so why do we need to get a license?" asked Tariq Rana, who on a recent day was buying an illegal 12-gauge shotgun after he was robbed of his cellphone, watch and cash the night before. "I couldn't get an arms license because I don't know any politicians."
Many licensed arms are sold in the military city of Rawalpindi, a half hour outside Islamabad. Down the street from the city's Liaquat National Bagh -- the park where Pakistan's first prime minister was assassinated a half-century ago and where Ms. Bhutto was killed last December -- small arms shops, their walls lined with shotguns and long-barreled pistols, are scattered amid mom-and-pop stores.
"A gun can be your friend," said one gun-shopper, Sifarish Khan. A few years ago, the government clerk was shot in the hand by his brother-in-law after an argument. He shows off a scar in the webbing between his fingers. Having a gun, he says, is like having loyal defenders at his side. "More bullets, more friends," he says.
Weapons purchased legally in the Rawalpindi shops are typically 10 times as expensive as those readily available on the black market in Northwest Frontier Province and its capital, Peshawar, a historical hub for weapon smuggling from Afghanistan. But urban Pakistanis tend to shun the illegal arms bazaars in an area known for tribal codes, bandits and Islamic insurgents.
Islamabad-based lawyer Muhammad Ali Saif, who comes from the country's northwest, says he wants an assault rifle for protection when he goes home on visits. He's no stranger to firearms. In the early 1980s, Mr. Saif says he was shot in the stomach fighting invading Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan. Mr. Saif has since publicly criticized his former Taliban comrades, however, and defended unpopular former President Pervez Musharraf in several court cases. The prominent lawyer says he won't feel secure until he's toting a weapon that matches those carried by potential assailants.
Mr. Saif submitted his AK-47 application to the prime minister's office eight months ago, and continues to wait for approval. He says the licensing process has become too politicized. "The AK-47 is a sign of privilege and prestige, which the government wants to confine to top-level officials," he said.
The prime minister's office didn't respond to requests for comment.
Meanwhile, Mr. Afridi, the journalist, is trying to get over the kidnapping that spurred a desire to carry his own weapon.
On the evening of Sept. 24, Mr. Afridi was driving home from his job as a reporter for a national newspaper. On the road, a group of young men motioned him to stop his Toyota. When he didn't, they fired a bullet that went in the passenger-side window and exited near his head. Instinctively, he braked. The men piled into his car, he said, and pressed a pistol to his temple.
The gang took Mr. Afridi to an abandoned house outside of Peshawar. They demanded a $100,000 ransom from his family, but gradually reduced the price for his release.
As negotiations dragged on for weeks, his guards relaxed. They gave Mr. Afridi scissors to trim his moustache. Eventually, he used the scissors to pick the lock that chained him to his bed. On Oct. 18, Mr. Afridi escaped out a window, leaving clothing and a sleeping cap lumped in the bed to fool his guards.
Mr. Afridi determined where he was and telephoned for help -- not to police, but to heavily armed relatives. Guns and revenge, he notes, are both part of the Afridi clan's tribal culture.
Mr. Afridi later used a map from Google Earth to direct police to the hideout, but they failed to find his kidnappers there. The senior superintendent of police in Peshawar, Kashif Alam, said the suspects escaped to a neighboring tribal region beyond their jurisdiction. Treating the episode as "a special case," Mr. Alam added, police gave Mr. Afridi four one-year permits to carry assault weapons.
The licenses were sufficient to arm a few cousins and an uncle. Now when he goes out on interviews, Mr. Afridi says, at least one of his relatives waits in the car for him, a Kalashnikov on his lap.
His family already had the assault weapons, he said, so it was only a matter of receiving clearance to carry them. "I don't even like guns," Mr. Afridi said. But he added: "We've become targets. Every wealthy person in Pakistan is a target."