Would you want to carry grenades in your pockets instead of groundnuts? This question was inspired by the recent proposal of an influential pressure group, the Christian Association of Nigeria, which said adult Nigerians should be allowed to carry guns. It revealed that it was considering sending a bill to the National Assembly asking lawmakers to enact a law that would permit every adult to carry arms as a way of checking "unwarranted attacks." CAN spoke against the backdrop of the "religious" crisis that rocked the otherwise calm city of Bauchi last month. Reviewing the crisis, which caused a heavy death toll, its Secretary-General, Mr. Samuel S. Salifu, thundered at a news conference: "We met this morning and we are considering sending a bill to the National Assembly to facilitate adults who are twenty-one years and above to make it legal to own arms and weapons." His expatiation of this stance, thus, "Everybody should buy his own gun," has upped the antennae of many concerned people, raising questions about his exact motive.
Anybody following the story on the Bauchi crisis would recall the anger and frustration that clouded people's perception of the ugly situation. Innocent persons on both sides of the Christian-Muslim divide were murdered in cold blood, while places of worship were desecrated. Tension grew high as insecurity pervaded the city and its environs. Many fled in search of safe havens. While the mayhem lasted, the people paid to provide security were for long nowhere to be seen. In trading blame, adherents of the two religions pointed accusing fingers at each other, even cooking up casualty figures. They ignored the fact that all "religious" crises had a double-edged knife of complicity.
CAN had a right to feel aggrieved, likewise the Muslims. What is baffling is the proposal by an otherwise intelligent man like Salifu for the further militarisation of the Nigerian society. The country is already awash with illegal weapons of all type, thereby making the crime rate to shoot through the roofs. CAN's proposal, therefore, flies in the face of good reasoning. Is the possession of guns by everyone the real solution to the violence in our country, a violence that was borne out of mundane reasons rather than any sense of religiosity? Which country solved its crime rate by giving a gun to anyone above 21?
In many American states, guns can be purchased off the counter, with minimum requirements. Now even school children own guns, even if illegally. Why? The founding fathers of America enshrined the right to own guns in the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, dictating that "a well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." But that's only because they had, at the back of their mind, the challenges of frontier life in America's first 100 years. Today in the U.S., "pro-gun culture" advocates are, however, talking like Mr. Salifu; even though they do not claim to be campaigning for the right to bear arms simply because they want to protect themselves from a racial, religious, or political group, they share a belief in the fact that owning guns gives them a sense of security. Erik Luna, Associate Professor at the University of Utah College of Law, says those activists generally see people as trustworthy and believe that citizens should not be prevented from having guns unless they have proven otherwise. "They share a belief that guns provide some level of protection against criminality and tyranny. This ranges from a feeling that it is good to have a gun around the house for self-protection, to an active distrust of government and a belief that widespread gun ownership is protection against tyranny."
Unfortunately, America, the world's "freest" nation, has become one of the most dangerous places on earth (forget Iraq, Afghanistan or the Niger delta) because gun ownership has become a sacrosanct culture for many Americans. Examples of the negative consequences of lax or zero gun control in the West are legion. The most celebrated in recent times used to be the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. In that tragedy, 12 students and a teacher were shot dead in a dramatic orgy of bloodletting, ending in the two young killers shooting themselves dead. Just this Wednesday, a man wiped out his family (including his mother and four relatives) and nine others in America. On the same day, a 17-year old gunman opened fire in south-western Germany, killing 16 people, including nine students, in his former high school. Back in 2006 a similar bloodbath occurred when a teenager killed 16 people and himself in another school in Germany. Compare this with Japan, where lawful ownership of firearms is rare and difficult, thereby making the violence level much lower.
We are not there yet, but we are already at the crossroads. CAN's reasoning is that religious (read: Christian) adherents would be able to defend themselves against "Muslim aggression" if they are armed. But what if you put it another way round, i.e. Muslims should own guns in order to defend themselves against "Christian aggression"? Would that not exacerbate the already fragile ties between the followers of the two major religions in the country? Besides, how can we know for sure that a gun legitimately obtained and owned by Mr. Salifu would be used purely for defensive purposes and not for aggression, robbery or assassination of a business associate? Nigerians being what they are, be sure to find many "legalised" arms being used for horrendous acts.
Understandably, CAN's suggestion was borne out of the frustration that engulfed us all in the wake of the recurrent killings in the North. The elites on both sides, wearing the toga of religiosity, are behind those ungodly acts. They have divided the nation along religious fault-lines. Today in Jos and Kaduna, for instance, people choose where to live based on their religious faith - just like in the Lebanon of old. But we were not like this before. None of the two religions supports violence against the other. A mixture of ignorance and politics created the volatile situation. Let everyone search their souls and see if their deeds and utterances are permitted by the holy books they profess to represent. A deep search would reveal that those calling themselves the soldiers of God were not appointed by Him, for God does not deal in the blood of the unknowing and the innocent. The solution is in our souls rather than in any gun we might acquire.
This piece was published in LEADERSHIP last Friday