Guns Licensed For Self Protection Cannot Be Used For Celebratory Firing: Supreme Court

    Without mincing any words and without pulling back any punches, a three Judge Bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) SA Bobde and comprising also of Justice BR Gavai and Justice Surya Kant most recently on March 18, 2020 in a notable judgment titled Bhagwan Singh vs State of Uttarakhand in Criminal Appeal No. 407 of 2020 [Arising out of Special Leave Petition (Crl.) No. 656 of 2018 have sought to send a firm and final message to all the people in our country that guns licensed for self protection cannot be used for celebratory firings and those who still dare to do it would have to pay a heavy cost for doing so! It also expressed its serious concerns on the increasing number of such incidents in our country. There has to be zero tolerance for all such incidents of celebratory firings in which all rules are broken with impunity and the lives of innocents are endangered most shamelessly and most carelessly!

To start with, the ball is set rolling in para 2 of this noteworthy judgment wherein it is observed that, “This Criminal Appeal is directed against the judgment dated 26th July, 2017 passed by the High Court of Uttarakhand whereby the appellant’s criminal appeal against the judgment and order dated 11th/12th July, 2013 rendered by Learned Sessions Judge, Bageshwar convicting the appellant under Sections 302 and 307 of Indian Penal Code (for short, ‘IPC’) and sentencing him to undergo life imprisonment (under Section 302, IPC) and 5 years’ rigorous imprisonment (under Section 307, IPC) along with a fine of Rs. 20,000/- in default whereof he was directed to undergo 6 months additional rigorous imprisonment was dismissed. The appellant was, however, acquitted for offence punishable under Section 25 of the Arms Act for want of the requisite sanction.”

Needless to say, it is then stated in para 3 that, “It may be mentioned at the outset that notice of the special leave petition was issued on the limited question to determine the nature of offence committed by the appellant i.e. whether it falls under the ambit of Section 302 or 304 of IPC. To determine this question the facts may be briefly noted.”

To recapitulate, while narrating the facts it is then observed in para 4 that, “On 21st April, 2007, the marriage ceremony of the Appellant’s son was taking place at village Dafaut, Uttarakhand, when around 5:30 pm as soon as the marriage procession reached the Appellant’s courtyard – he suddenly fired celebratory gunshots. The pellets struck 5 persons standing in the courtyard namely, Smt. Anita W/o Chanchal Singh, Khushal Singh @ Sonu, Ummed Singh (P.W.6), Smt. Vimla W/o Devendra Singh (P.W.5) and Smt. Vimla W/o Bhupal Singh (P.W.7). The injured were taken to the hospital where two of them – Anita and Khushal Singh @ Sonu succumbed to their injuries. Later at about 8:40 pm, Dharam Singh (P.W.3) filed an FIR at PS Kothwali, Bageshwar, narrating in full detail the incident of which he himself was a witness.”

Be it noted, it is then noted in para 5 that, “After the conclusion of investigation, initially a charge sheet under Section 304, IPC was filed but later on the appellant was charged under Sections 302 and 307, IPC along with Section 25 of the Arms Act.”

Of course, it is then brought out in para 6 that, “The Ld. Sessions Judge held the appellant guilty of offences under Sections 302 and 307, IPC based on testimonies of eye witnesses and injured witnesses. It was noted that Appellant fired shots from his son’s licensed gun causing fatal injuries to Smt. Anita and Khushal Singh and injuring three others. He was consequently sentenced in the manner as briefly noticed in the opening paragraph of the order.”

What follows next is then stated in para 7 that, “The appellant went in appeal before the High Court. His primary contention was that he had no intention to cause anyone’s death. He stated that the firing was by a ball with which some children were playing. The ball struck against the gun in his hand and led to the firing of shots. The occurrence was an admitted fact and the only plea taken was that it being a case of accidental firing, Section 300 punishable under Section 302, IPC was not attracted.” But the High Court rejected his plea as pointed out in para 8.

As it turned out, the Bench then points out in para 15 that, “The trial court as well as the High Court have proceeded on the premise that the appellant’s act by firing from the gun which was pointed towards the roof was as bad as firing into a crowd of persons so he ought to have known that his act of gun-shot firing was so imminently dangerous that it would, in all probability, cause death or such bodily injury as was likely to cause death.”

More significantly, it is then held in para 16 that, “The facts and circumstances of the instant case, however, do not permit to draw such a conclusion. We have already rejected the prosecution version to the extent that the appellant aimed at Smt. Anita and then fired the shot(s). The evidence on record contrarily shows that the appellant aimed the gun towards the roof and then fired. It was an unfortunate case of mis-firing. The appellant of course cannot absolve himself of the conclusion that he carried a loaded gun at a crowded place where his own guests had gathered to attend the marriage ceremony. He did not take any reasonable safety measure like to fire the shot in the air or towards the sky, rather he invited full risk and aimed the gun towards the roof and fired the shot. He was expected to know that pellets could cause multiple gun-shot injuries to the nearby persons even if a single shot was fired. The appellant is, thus, guilty of an act, the likely consequences of which including causing fatal injuries to the persons being in a close circuit, are attributable to him. The offence committed by the appellant, thus, would amount to ‘culpable homicide’ within the meaning of Section 299, though punishable under Section 304 Part 2 of the IPC.”

Most significantly, it is then underscored in para 17 that, “Incidents of celebratory firing are regretfully rising, for they are seen as a status symbol. A gun licensed for self-protection or safety and security of crops and cattle cannot be fired in celebratory events, it being a potential cause of fatal accidents. Such like misuse of fire arms convert a happy event to a pall of gloom. Appellant cannot escape the consequences of carrying the gun with live cartridges with the knowledge that firing at a marriage ceremony with people present there was imminently dangerous and was likely to cause death.”

To buttress its point further, we then see that the Bench observes in para 18 that, “A somewhat, similar situation arose in Kunwar Pal (Supra) wherein this Court held as under:

“12. We find that the intention of the appellant to kill the deceased, if any, has not been proved beyond a reasonable doubt and in any case the appellant is entitled to the benefit of doubt which is prominent in this case. It is not possible therefore to sustain the sentence under Section 304 Part I IPC, which requires that the act by which death is caused, must be done with the intention of causing death or with the intention of causing such bodily injury as is likely to cause death. Though it is not possible to attribute intention it is equally not possible to hold that the act was done without the knowledge that it is likely to cause death. Everybody, who carries a gun with live cartridges and even others know that firing a gun and that too in the presence of several people is an act, is likely to cause death, as indeed it did. Guns must be carried with a sense of responsibility and caution and are not meant to be used in such places like marriage ceremonies.”

On balance, it is then held by the Bench in para 19 that, “Resultantly, we hold that the appellant had the requisite knowledge essential for constituting the offence of ‘culpable homicide’ under Section 299 and punishable under Section 304 Part-2 of IPC. He is thus held guilty under Section 304 Part-2 and not under Section 302 of IPC. On the same analogy, the appellant is liable to be punished for ‘attempt to commit culpable homicide’ not amounting to murder under Section 308, in place of Section 307 of IPC for the injuries caused to the other three victims. To this extent, the appellant’s contentions merit acceptance.”

Last but not the least, it is then held in para 20 that, “For the above-stated reasons, the appeal is allowed in part. The conviction of the appellant under Section 302, IPC is modified to Section 304 Part-2, IPC and that under Section 307, IPC is altered to Section 308, IPC. As a necessary corollary, the sentence of life imprisonment awarded to the appellant for committing the offence under Section 302 IPC, is reduced to 10 years’ rigorous imprisonment and the sentence awarded to him under Section 307, IPC is substituted with Section 308 IPC, without any alteration in the fine imposed by the trial court.”

No doubt, the time is ripe now to enact the strictest law which completely prohibits celebratory firing and the jail term for it must be increased from 10 to 30 or at least 20 years and in addition a heavy fine should also be imposed on those indulging in the same! The Apex Court Bench headed by CJI Sharad A Bobde have sent the simple and straight message to one and all that if you indulge in celebratory firing and break the law then you are bound to face the punishment as envisaged right now under our penal laws and be behind bars for 10 years! Very rightly so!

To sum up, one hopes earnestly that now strictest law is enacted by Parliament on this at the earliest so that innocent and invaluable lives are saved from being lost forever! It brooks no more delay anymore now! All that is required is just adequate political will! Nothing else is required. We have lost many invaluable lives for no fault of theirs on account of this celebratory firing which deserves zero tolerance yet we see that the punishment level is still the same! It goes without saying that more than the fine it is the increase in jail term that will deter people from indulging in the same!

Sanjeev Sirohi

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