The Global Trade in Small Arms: Slow Motion Weapons of Mass Destruction?

Each year, guns kill about 200 000 people around the world, including homicides, suicides, and unintentional deaths. Of these, approximately 30,000 deaths occur in the United States, which has one of the highest rates of gun mortality in the developed world. Another 100,000 people a year die in conflict zones around the world. For every individual killed by firearms, three people are wounded, often with injuries that require lifetime care. What role does the gun industry play in this carnage and what are some of the strategies that public health professionals are using to reduce the toll?

This past June, groups around the world celebrated the Global Week of Action Against Gun Violence. Given the leading role that small arms play in gun deaths, advocates have often focused on these weapons. One member of theInternational Action Network of Small Arms (IANSA) argued that small arms were a “weapon of mass destruction.” Among the activities carried out in June were the introduction of the gun control measure “Anatasia’s Law” in Quebec, Canada, a peace march in Haiti and a youth conference against gun violence in Nepal.

Small arms include pistols, revolvers, hand grenades, sub-machine guns, rifles and assault rifles, all weapons that are easily carried and used by one individual. Unlike major weapons, which are kept in government stockpiles, most small arms are in the hands of civilians, which makes them hard to regulate and trace. In addition, most are not registered, which makes tracking their movement from legal to illegal transfers difficult. Also unlike major weapons systems, few internationally recognized rules regulate small arms. In most countries, civilians can legally possess such weapons, making them widely available for use and misuse. How gun makers manufacture, advertise and distribute small arms both nationally and globally influences their impact on public health.

United States leads the world in export, import and ownership of small arms

According to IANSA, there are approximately 640 million small arms in the world, one for every ten people on the planet. Civilians own 59% of these firearms; government armed forces hold 38%, and the police and other armed groups hold the remainder. The Small Arms Survey estimates that US civilians own approximately one-third of all small arms in the world, making the United States the largest market for both US and foreign gun manufacturers.

The United States, Italy, Brazil, Germany, Russia, Austria, France, Israel, Switzerland, Spain, the United Kingdom, Belgium and China are amongst the top gun exporters and more than 1,000 companies in at least 98 countries around the world are currently involved in some aspect of small arms production. Production occurs in both state-owned and private companies. The United States is the largest exporter of small arms.

In its 2006 report, the Small Arms Survey estimated that between the years 1998 and 2003, the US exported about 350,000 firearms per year. Although small arms make up only a minor portion of total US exports, their impact on geopolitical conflict is considerable. According to the Small Arms Survey, both commercial and political factors influence the distribution of US small arms exports. While some small arms exports are transferred by the US government to foreign powers through bilateral trade agreements to advance alliances and US policy goals, commercial interests drive the majority of gun exports.

But while the US is a major exporter of small arms, it imports far more guns than it exports and is the largest importer of small arms. Between 1998 and 2004, the total number of small arms imported into the United States each year almost doubled, from 1,289,608 guns to 2,406,387. Germany, Austria, Italy, and Brazil supply the greatest number of small arms to the US civilian and military markets, with Israel, Spain, Argentina, Canada and the Czech Republic comprising a second tier of major exporters. Many foreign arms exporters have facilities in the US, in part because the Pentagon often requires that weapons it purchases be built in the United States. Box 1 lists the top companies makings small arms. The total small arms production market is worth approximately US$7 billion per year, of which IANSA estimates at least US$1 billion may be generated from illegal transfers and sales.

Impact on Global South

Death and injuries due to firearms disproportionately affect the global south and poor countries. According to Child Advocacy International, during the 1990s, the poorest countries in the world were flooded with arms, particularly the more affordable small arms. As the Cold War ended, small arms makers and distributors found new markets for cheap weapons in Africa, the Middle East, and other regions. Increased competition in the small arms industry brought prices down, making these weapons accessible to a larger market. The AK47 rifle, a weapon easy to use and maintain, making it a favorite for gangs, paramilitary forces and lone thugs, can now be obtained in Kenya for as little as one chicken, according to Amnesty International.

Small arms brokers often supply both sides of a conflict, selling in both legal and illegal markets. In return for weapons, brokers receive narcotics, money or precious minerals, expanding black markets and funding a variety of criminal enterprises. Additionally, other governments and multinational corporations supply favored factions with firearms. Since the Second World War, more than 85% of major conflicts have occurred in poor countries and in the vast majority of cases, small arms were the main weapon of choice used in combat.

A large proportion of those who die in armed conflicts are civilians, particularly women and children. UNICEF estimates that between 1986 and1996, two million children were killed in armed conflict and six million were injured or permanently disabled. Women suffer disproportionately from the widespread availability of small arms given that they are almost never the buyers or users of small arms but are often the victims of gun violence.

In addition to death and disability, consequences of conflict prolonged and exacerbated by small arms include: food deprivation; forced displacement; disruption of public health and medical systems which, in turn, leads to the spread of disease and increased medical expenditures; sexual abuse; rape; lethal partner violence; disruption to the educational system; separation of families; torture, high annual productivity losses, and an increase in child soldiers (See Southall and O’Hare). A1999 International Red Cross report (IRC) found that starvation, disease, abuse and delays in reconstruction and developmentare also increased in armed conflicts when humanitarian aid agencies are attacked and must therefore suspend operations.

Once a country is awash in weapons used in conflict, these weapons remain in the area after the conflict is over. This increases the need for protection which further increases the number of weapons in the hands of civilians. The IRC report states, “Suffering can continue, often for years after the end of conflicts, as the availability of arms engenders a ‘culture of violence,’ undermining the rule of law and threatening efforts at reconciliation among former warring parties.”

Local problems; global solutions

Small arms have flooded the Global South post World War Two

According to an Amnesty International reportthe United States, China, and Russia have repeatedly resisted and disrupted efforts at the UN to regulate small arms, arguing that proposed regulations would limit commercial and foreign policy options. At the 2001 conference, the US Undersecretary of State John Bolton (later the US Ambassador to the UN) argued that only illegal trading should be addressed and that the US would block agreements that infringed on Second Amendment rights to bear arms. During the 2006 Review Conference, the United States blocked many important issues including discussion of non-State actors, or the transfer of weapons to non-government armed groups. The US government has a long history of providing weapons to such groups in Central America, the Middle East and elsewhere.. The United States also attempted to block any discussion of follow-up, arguing that further meetings were unnecessary. The 2006 meeting reached no decisions and produced no outcome documents, leading many gun control and human rights NGOs to consider the meeting a failure. The October 2006 General Assembly, however, where only a majority vote is needed, approved a Biennial Meeting for July 2008 to review the implementation progress for the POA.By its nature, controlling the small arms trade requires a global solution. Prior to 2001, the UN had not addressed small arms in any formal way. Part of the challenge for the UN has been that five permanent members of the Security Council, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and the United States, are among the top suppliers of small arms. However, preventing gun violence has increasingly become an important international concern. In 2001 the UN held the first global conference on small arms which resulted in the adoption of the Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All its Aspects (POA). The POA was adopted by consensus at the first meeting. However, the agreement is politically but not legally binding. Instead it encourages governments to exercise tighter control over small and light weapons, especially at the national level. After the initial conference, Biennial Meetings of States were held in July 2003 and 2005 and in July 2006, a Review Conference was held in New York City. The next Biennial Meeting will be held during the summer of 2008 to clarify the POA and to review progress in adopting the measure.

Throughout the POA process, gun manufacturers argued that regulations would be a threat to their bottom line. In addition, to combat the POA, the NRA launched the now defunct web campaign “” The NRA stated: “These dictatorships, terrorist states and so-called ‘free’ nations of the world plan to meet on our home soil to finalize a UN treaty that would strip all citizens of all nations of their right to self-protection, and strip you of your rights under the Second Amendment.” The National Rifle Association (NRA) has been steadfast in opposing UN regulations on small arms and has repeatedly sought to create confusion for the general public about the issue, stating that the POA was an attempt to ultimately ban certain guns and weaken second amendment rights. At both the initial 2001 conference and the 2006 Review Conference, Republican Congressman from Georgia and NRA board member Bob Barr was part of the official U.S. delegation.

At the 2006 Review Conference, The World Forum on the Future of Sports Shooting Activities (WFSA), a UN affiliated NGO, that includes the NRA and firearms industry groups, argued that the vast majority of gun owners were law-abiding citizens whose rights to bear arms needed to be protected. They further argued that the focus of the treaty should be on illegal trade only. Ted Rowe, Chairman of the WFSA Manufacturers Advisory Group reminded attendees that his organization “represents over ten million association members in the international arena,” including “the major civilian firearms manufacturers in the world.” He urged that the small arms category include only “fully automatic” weapons “for use as weapons of war.” Richard Patterson, Managing Director ofSporting Arms and Ammunitions Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) urged the review committee to avoid new rules on ammunition markings to be used for tracing purposes. Such a process, he said, would be both economically unfeasible and untenable for the industry. Similarly, the NRA has opposed any new effort at ammunition or gun tracing systems, a position supported by the US government.

In 2003 the UN began to look more closely at illegal trade in small arms. In 2005, the UN created the Group of Government Experts to investigate this issue. At its June 2007 meeting, the Group noted that unregulated brokering may lead to arms being diverted to conflict-ridden areas and to terrorist groups. The consensus report will also define what constitutes illicit arms brokering in small arms. The Group will soon release their findings on whether or not a global instrument on brokering is needed at this time.

Work on the UN global Group of Government Experts Arms Trade Treaty began in December 2006. Control Arms, a global campaign jointly run by Amnesty International, IANSA and Oxfam, played a key role in convincing the UN to act. In addition, United Kingdom, Kenya and other States brought forward a resolution to begin work on such a treaty. At the 2006 meeting, 153 governments voted in support of the UN resolution “Toward an Arms Trade Treaty.” At the behest of the gun lobby and its supporters in the Administration, the United States was the only country to vote against the measure. Its passage began the process of negotiating a common, global standard for the import, export and transfer of all conventional arms. To do so, the measure pulls together appropriate international standards and laws which would apply to the arms trade, such as the Geneva conventions, the Mine Ban Treaty, and the Convention against Genocide. The treaty process also stipulates that brokers and exporters will be in violation of international law if they knowingly transfer weapons to groups which will use them for violations of human rights.

By June 20th of this year, more than 94 governments had participated in the UN consultation process. Both the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and the Council of the European Union (EU) released public statements affirming the treating and the move toward regulation of the global arms trade. At the next meeting in February 2008 government experts will brief governments on recommended provisions for the Arms Trade Treaty.

Unlike the POA and the Group of Government Experts, who focus only on the illicit gun trade, the Arms Trade Treaty focuses on both legal and illegal transfers. Gun rights groups and gun lobbies strongly oppose this wider focus, preferring an exclusive emphasis on the illegal trade in small arms and no restrictions on their marketing or distribution practices. However, gun control advocates point out that 80 to 90% of the international trade in small arms begins in legal markets, which account for more than 50% of the weapons in circulation. After the initial legal transfer, many weapons are then illegally traded and stay in circulation for decades after the first sale. While the gun industry prefers to transfer the health, human and economic costs of these illegal guns to the public, gun control advocates insist that gun makers have a cradle to grave responsibility for the costs of their products. Gun control advocates are also increasingly reframing gun violence as a public health concern rather than solely an issue of violence prevention. Global acceptance of this reframing and the notion of social responsibility strengthens the case for regulation of both legal and illegal transfers of small arms.

In the coming years, a growing global gun control movement has the potential to change the norms and laws of what constitutes acceptable corporate behavior and thus to reduce the global burden of death and injury imposed by small arms. To date, the Bush Administration has opposed most major international public health treaties, including those on tobacco, sugar, and global warming. For public health professionals, the 2008 elections offer an opportunity to educate the public about our nation’s role in improving global health.

Key Organizations Advocating for Control of Small Arms Trade

Coalition to Stop Gun Violence The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) emerged from the civil rights movement in the early 1970s and pushes a progressive agenda to reduce firearm death and injury.

Control Arms is a global campaign jointly sponsored by Amnesty International, International Action Network of Small Arms, and Oxfam.

International Action Network of Small Arms is a global network of more than 700 civil society organizations working to stop the proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. Its members include survivor support groups, human rights activists, public health professional and research institutes.

Photo credits:

1. United Nations.

2-5: Luke Dowdney (Children in Organised Armed Violence). Courtesy of IANSA.