The Supreme Court on Monday issued notice to the Centre in an appeal against the order of the Delhi High Court that had held that a member of a rifle club or rifle association cannot possess a third firearm other than for the limited period of using it for target practice or participation in a competition.
The appeal was moved by Meet Malhotra, a lawyer and life member of National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) who had three firearms duly endorsed on his license. Prior to the Arms Amendment Act, 2019, section 3(2) of the Arms Act permitted a person to acquire and possess three firearms. The amendment reduced the number from three to two firearms. The Delhi State Rifle Association has also approached the Apex Court in appeal.
Malhotra’s case is that he is entitled to possess three fire arms since by virtue of being a member of National Rifle Association of India (NRAI), he is covered under exemption under Section 3(3) of the Arms Act, as he possessed the .22 bore rifle only for the purpose of target practice
A bench of Justice B.V. Nagarathna And Justice Ujjal Bhuyan issued notice in the appeal and posted the matter to 31st October for further consideration.
Sr. Adv. Mukul Rohatgi and Adv. Lakshmeesh S Kamath appeared for Meet Malhotra, Sr. Adv. Sidharth Luthra appeared for the Association.
“the way the High Court judgment reads now, even the association will not be able to possess multiple arms, because its been limited to .22 bore rifles and air guns”, Luthra argued.
“If I am exempt as a member of the association, I am entitled to keep it for myself. Why should I give it to a club or association, which will give it to me when I want? The right to acquire doesn’t mean I have to beg or borrow,” he said. “Now instead of keeping the gun I have to borrow it, suppose I go to the association to borrow and they say no then what happens? I am a member of the association, I have a right to keep it, not beg and burrow,” Rohatgi argued.
Malhotra in his plea contends that the 2019 Amendment will not have retrospective operation. “As such, rights accrued and vested in the Petitioner could not have been affected by the said amendment; the Petitioner could not, under guise of the amending be forced to disgorge, sell or dispose one of the three firearms held by him,” the Appellant’s plea states. Malhotra has been a Life Member of the National Rifle Association of India (NRAI) from 2011 onwards and the Arms Amendment Act, 2019, came into force only on 13.12.2019, his plea states.
Delhi High Court Ruling
A division bench of the Delhi High Court had upheld the order of a single judge which held that such a member cannot hold more than two firearms by claiming exemption under section 3(2) of the Arms Act 1959.
While dismissing the appeal, the court rejected Malhotra’s contention that the purpose of bringing the 2019 amendment was only for curbing illegal arms trafficking alone and that the amendment is to be seen only in that context.
Observing that the purpose of the 2019 amendment was to bring down the number of firearms in the possession of persons holding a license, the Delhi High Court had said:
“This fact is more evident from the fact that prior to 1983 a person was entitled to possess more than three fire arms which was reduced to three by way of an amendment in 1983 and by the present amendment, i.e., amendment of 2019, the figure has further been reduced to two from three. It is in this backdrop that Section 3 of the Arms Act needs to be interpreted.”
Perusing section 13 of the Act which provides for the grant of arms licenses, the High Court had said that a member of a rifle club or rifle association cannot acquire, possess or carry more than two firearms but they can use the third firearm only for target practice for which they have to obtain a license under the provision.
“A member of the rifle club or rifle association holding two fire arms cannot acquire, possess and carry the third firearm even for target practice as that possession would become illegal subjecting him to punishment under the Arms Act. Had it been the intention of the Central Government that a member of a rifle club or rifle association can acquire, possess and carry a .22 bore rifle or an air rifle firearm at all times, then legislature would have not restricted the Section by inserting the word “using”,” the High Court said.
The bench thus ruled that the member is permitted to only use a .22 bore rifle or an air rifle for target practice even if he has two other firearms.
The High Court also said that such a member does not fall under the exempted category under section 41 of the Act which gives power to the Central Government to grant exemption to categories of persons from the provisions of the Arms Act.
“Notifications have been issued by the Government permitting sports persons to hold fire arms more than the specified limit. A special exemption for possessing a third firearm which includes a .22 bore rifle or an air rifle in addition to two fire arms cannot be read into Section 3(3) of the Arms Act as it will become contrary to the object of the Government in reducing the number of firearms which can be held by a person,” the High Court observed.
The High Court had also said that the permission that had been granted to possess a third firearm to the member is only for using it for target practice for which a license is required under section 13(3) of the Act.
“Had such a permission not been given, then the possession of a third fire arm by a member of a rifle association or rifle club even for target practice would become illegal making such a person vulnerable to the rigours under the Act,” the High Court observed.
Case Title: MEET MALHOTRA v. UNION OF INDIA, SLP(C) No. 17415-17416/2023