UNNAO, India -- Early in September, a lawmaker here celebrated his 41st birthday with a packed poolside party of dancing, drunken, gun-wielding guests at a highway resort called Fantasy motel. As the party moved into full swing around midnight, people began firing into the air in delirious joy.
Suddenly, the politician fell, fatally wounded by a bullet from his own bodyguard's weapon.
Virendra Singh, a farmer in Uttar Pradesh, owns a revolver and a rifle, and has applied for three more gun licenses.
(Rama Lakshmi -- The Washington Post)
For residents of Unnao, a high-crime town in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, the widely publicized death was a reminder of their state's expanding gun culture. But it had no apparent effect on people's desire for firearms.
Uttar Pradesh officials say they receive thousands of applications daily for gun licenses, and at last count 500,000 cases were pending.
"Times are bad, we have to protect ourselves," said Virendra Singh, a corn farmer in Dostinagar village, not far from the motel. Singh has a handgun and a rifle, which cost him the equivalent of about $1,400, and has applied for licenses for three more guns.
"If you have weapons, the crime rate will go down," he said, as he sat next to a heap of freshly harvested corn in his front yard. He said he needs guns to protect his crop from robbers and to chase away thieves trying to steal his tractor.
"A gun brings respect," Singh said. "In the cities, when you come into a little money you buy a car. Here in the village you buy a gun."
Half a century after this country gained independence from Britain through the doctrine of nonviolence of Mohandas Gandhi, guns are proliferating in many regions.
"The gun is the ultimate status symbol in the villages these days," said Kamal Saksena, a senior police officer in Lucknow. "And they display it openly as it gives them a feeling of raw power." It is not uncommon to see a man with a rifle slung over his shoulder or a revolver at his waist on the state's highways.
"If your neighbor has it, then you feel pressured to have it, too," said Saksena.
Getting a gun license is a complicated process. Applicants have to demonstrate that they face a perceived threat and prove that they have no criminal record. But Saksena said the police records in the state are not computerized and that applicants with criminal pasts can often get licenses.
In 2002, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, 24 percent of murders nationwide were committed with guns, compared with 20 percent in 2000. In Uttar Pradesh state, the share of gun murders stood at 54 percent in 2002.
More than a third of the people of Unnao district live in desperate poverty. But in Uttar Pradesh, the district has the highest number of applicants for weapons, which can cost dearly. "The queue is very long. Nine out of ten applications I get every day in my office are for gun licenses," said Anil Kumar Sagar, Unnao's chief bureaucrat.
In Dostinagar village, Gangaram Trivedi, a potbellied potato farmer, bought a single-barrel shotgun four years ago, although he acknowledges he had never been attacked or threatened.