The Global Threat of Small Arms and Light Weapons -- A Primer

What are light weapons?

Broadly speaking, the term refers to any weapon that can be carried by one or two people. Examples range from military-style guns---pistols, carbines, assault rifles, and light machine guns--to grenade launchers, mortars, mobile anti-tank guns and rocket launchers, and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile launchers. Munitions used with these weapons (such as bullets, grenades and missiles), landmines, and explosives are also encompassed by the term.

Why the focus on these weapons now?

With the end of the cold war, increased attention is being paid today to the devastation wrought by armed conflict around the world. Previously referred to by official Washington as "low intensity conflicts," these wars have resulted in the death of well over one million people this decade. The vast majority of these casualties--as many as 90 percent--are civilian victims of indiscriminate warfare.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has determined that small arms are the principal cause of death in conflicts. In fact, these arms are thought to be responsible for 90 percent of recent war casualties. Small/light arms are cheap and portable, and are used by all combatants--state militaries, militias, and insurgents. It is the prevalence--that is, the widespread proliferation--of these arms, combined with their indiscriminate use, that renders them responsible for so much of the killing.

In addition, small and light arms are used in crime and terrorist acts around the world.

Who's impacted by the spread of these arms?


Millions of people are caught in the crossfire of warfare or become victims of armed crime. Many are women and children.


The light weight and small size of these weapons has made it possible [easy] for children to be recruited or compelled to become soldiers. Child soldiers were particularly exploited in recent wars in Liberia and the Sudan.

Political dissidents, union organizers, land rights activists, journalists, etc.---

Small arms are the principal tool of intimidation used by repressive police and military forces. The massacre in Chiapas last December of 45 unarmed civilians, carried out by government-affiliated paramilitary forces with high-powered AK-47 assault rifles, is one of countless examples.

Foreign relief and development workers---

Armed conflict often creates the humanitarian emergencies that relief workers are called in to alleviate. In addition, aid workers are increasingly coming under fire---being killed, kidnapped, or threatened.

International peacekeeping troops---

The United Nations found that small arms and light weapons pose the principal threat to international troops seeking to establish or maintain peace among combatants.

Local and foreign businesspeople---

Wealthy businesspeople are often kidnapped or extorted with these arms. More generally, the widespread diffusion of weapons undermines economic development and often results in the total collapse of a functioning economy.

Tourists and the tourism industry---

Armed violence has a devastating impact on local tourism, which is the largest industry in the world today and the leading source of revenue for many countries. In several recent cases, such as the massacre of 66 people at Luxor, Egypt last November, tourists are particularly targeted.

Does this proliferation constitute a national security threat?

In recent years the White House and Pentagon have identified international crime (including drug trafficking), terrorism and internal and regional conflict as major security threats. Speaking before the UN General Assembly in 1995, President Clinton highlighted these threats and urged states to work with the United States "to shut down the grey markets that outfit terrorists and criminals with firearms."

In addition, as U.S. troops are increasingly participating in peacekeeping operations they are coming under direct threat or fire from these arms.

How many of these weapons are out there?

Estimates range from 100 to 500 million military style weapons in circulation, in addition to hundreds of millions more designed for police or civilian use. The wide range points to the lack of available data: Small arms and light weapons are rarely reported in official statistics on the arms trade, are impossible to quantify independently, and are often manufactured and transferred covertly.

Where are these guns coming from?

More than 70 states produce various light weapons and ammunition. Direct sales from weapons manufacturers to foreign governments or private entities are a principal source of supply. Such sales are usually regulated (that is, licensed for export) by national governments. In 1996, for instance, the U.S. State Departments licensed over $470 million of light military weapons for export. The Commerce Department, which has jurisdiction over industry-direct sales of shotguns and police equipment, approved an additional $57 million of exports. While these amounts are small in the context of the overall arms trade (estimated at some $30 billion annually), at $100-300 per gun these figures represent enormous quantities of weapons.

Cold war-era surplus stocks are a second major source of light weapons supply today. In the past few years the U.S. military has given away or sold at discount vast quantities of excess assault rifles, carbines, .45 caliber pistols, machine guns and grenade launchers. Germany, the Netherlands, the former Soviet republics and several Eastern European countries have been unloading surplus guns on the world market.

Covert gun-running by governments to foreign governments or--more often--insurgent groups is a third source of small/light arms proliferation. Such policies are frought with danger, as evidenced by the disastrous legacy of weapons shipped by the Soviet Union and United States to combatants in Afghanistan, Angola and Central America. These weapons outlived the original purpose for which they were shipped and have since been recycled to other conflicts or to bandits.

The black market is another major channel of supply, where private dealers knowingly violate the arms sales laws and policies of the source, transit or recipient state for commercial gain.

Are most of the weapons of concern obtained legally or illegally?

There is a thriving global black market in small/light weapons. These arms are particularly attractive to smugglers, as they are cheap, and easily concealed and transported. The secretive nature of arms smuggling makes it impossible to know with any certainty the magnitude of the traffic, but some have estimated that it accounts for as much as half of all light weapons transfers. Moreover, illegally-acquired arms contribute disproportionately to the violent conflict and crime plaguing much of the world, since they constitute the principal source of supply for insurgents, governments under embargo, and criminals. Human Rights Watch found, for instance, that illegal gunrunning to both sides of the conflict in Burundi has fueled tensions and made possible the commission of serious human rights abuses.

The licit and illicit traffic in small arms are closely intertwined. Arms that are originally exported legally, but are not properly tracked or secured, often fall into illegal circulation. In 1994, for instance, foreign governments reported 6,238 unlawfully acquired U.S.-origin firearms to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Over half--3,376--were discovered in Mexico. In 1996, the BATF received approximately 30,000 requests to trace weapons used in crimes.

Theft or capture of state security forces' arms are a major source of black market supply around the world. In one frightening example, the General Accounting Office has reported that U.S. military forces cannot account for 40 "Stinger" shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles shipped to the Middle East during the Persian Gulf war. These weapons are ideal for terrorists.

The domestic U.S. gun market is another principal source of black market guns. For several years, the Mexican government, in particular, has pointed out that drug cartels (and other criminals) are getting many of their arms north of the border. Underscoring the point, several recent high-profile assassinations in Mexico were carried out with guns purchased illegally in the United States.

Finally, cold war "covert" arms supply by the U.S. and Soviet Union, particularly during the 1980s, is a principal source of the light arms in unlawful possession around the world today. The two countries donated huge quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars and other weapons to insurgents or government allies in Afghanistan, Angola and Nicaragua. Because these weapons were transferred in a secretive and unacountable manner, they are particularly prone to fall into the black market. Many of these arms remain in active service today, contributing to a legacy of insecurity and violence in southern Asia, southern and central Africa and Central America.

What controls on light weapons flows are already in place?

Traditional arms control arrangements, such as the U.N. Register of Conventional Weapons and the "Wassenaar Arrangement," pay scant attention to light weapons. During 1997, however, governments and international organizations made progress in clamping down on illicit weapons trafficking.

Last November, the United States and 27 other governments from the hemisphere signed a Mexican-backed convention, negotiated through the Organization of American States, against illicit manufacture and trafficking of firearms, ammunition and related materials. The treaty requires states to strengthen border controls, mark firearms and share information on weapons producers, dealers, importers and exporters. The 15 members of the European Union, meanwhile, made a political commitment to prevent illicit trafficking in conventional weapons in June 1997, and the "Group of 8" industrialized nations (which includes Russia) is considering the adoption of an international agreement along the lines of the OAS convention.

The United Nations has also been at the forefront of efforts to restrain the spread of light weapons, from both a conflict prevention and crime prevention perspective. In 1995, a panel of governmental experts investigated the proliferation of small/light arms and recommended increased information sharing, stronger laws and regulations, improved security for surplus weapons storage, and the destruction of weaponry within the mandate of UN peacekeeping operations. The panel also called for an international conference on illicit weapons trafficking. The UN's Economic and Social Council has also been evaluating ways to combat crime by cracking down on the illegal trade in firearms.

In addition to these regional or international agreements, most governments have national policies in place to regulate imports and exports of light weapons. In the United States, for example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms deals with the import of firearms, while the State, Commerce and Defense Departments have jurisdiction over arms exports from the United States.

Won't a focus on weapons deflect attention away from efforts to deal with the root cause of conflict and crime?

The vast supply of small and light military style arms, while perhaps not causing conflicts, encourages the resort to warfare (as opposed to other means of conflict resolution or state formation), thus creating more demand. In addition, the easy availability of arms lengthens the duration and lethality of wars, not only causing immense casualties but also creating massive refugee flows. Even when conflicts are ended, they leave a legacy of an armed and insecure society, which undermines the consolidation of peace and the re-establishment of governance and economic activity, contributing directly to the principle root causes of conflict and crime.

Is the issue really one of a global gun ban?

A ban on small arms and light weapons is unrealistic, given the widespread acceptance of their legitimacy in the hands of militaries and some police forces. The focus of efforts should be to end the indiscriminate use and curb the oversupply of these weapons, with the aim of reducing the damage and suffering they cause.

Is it really possible to limit the oversupply of these weapons?

As a first step, governments and advocates must learn more about the scale of the problem. At present, data is non-existent, and there is no formal information collection mechanism. One approach might be to expand the UN Register of Conventional Arms to include all light weapons and small arms transfers. Improved national transparency and oversight of light weapons would also contribute toward stronger controls.

Controls on the illicit trade in light weapons are possible and palatable for governments. The OAS Convention is hopefully only the first of these initiatives. There is considerable scope for national, regional and international controls in the form of tighter national law enforcement and customs policies, and multilateral conventions that require governments to increase cooperation and information sharing, strengthen existing legislation and implement new controls. These include marking of small arms and ammunition, the development of national registries of gun ownership and transfer, and the establishment of stricter verification mechanisms on the final destination of weapons transfers.

Much like the war on drugs, government rhetoric in favor of eradicating illicit weapons trafficking has developed much more rapidly than the practical measures that will actually impact the trade. It is vital that governments translate these policies into action, and commit the necessary resources to guarantee their implementation. At the same time, proposals for curbing the illicit trade only address one element of light weapons proliferation. Governments should not be allowed to use illicit controls as a smokescreen to divert attention away from the violence and suffering caused by legally traded guns.

Codes of conduct on arms transfers can help ensure that legally traded weapons do not fall into the hands of those who abuse human rights and threaten peace and stability. In the past, supplier nations have been too quick to sell weapons to anyone who would buy them, and as a result, have armed abusive regimes and provided weaponry for repression. Codes of conduct which would prevent future transfers of military equipment to such regimes are gaining ground in the U.S. Congress, the European Union and within the international community.

If the harmful impact of light weapons proliferation is viewed as a violation of humanitarian law, there is some scope for an international convention to curb their misuse. A convention could focus on the excessively harmful and injurious results of the wrongful of use of small arms and light weapons, and commit governments to, among other things, collects and destroy weapons, ensure safe storage, restrain transfers and prohibit exports to countries which do not agree to the provisions of the treaty.

There are a number of other practical options for control. Limiting ammunition production and transfers holds promise as a means of reducing violence, while the post-conflict destruction of surplus weaponry would prevent arms from being recycled to other wars and to criminals. In El Salvador, where tens of thousands of weapons are in circulation, the homicide rate has increased by 36 percent since the end of the civil war. Similarly, in South Africa, the easy availability of weapons from across the border in Mozambique and Angola has led to a dramatic increase in armed crime.

Certain types of light weapons may lend themselves to an outright ban, such as landmines, blinding laser weapons and other hi-tech arms. In fact, it may be possible to enact prohibitions on some of these before they reach full development and manufacture. Similarly, norms or bans on civilian possession of military-style weapons would reduce the capacity for violence around the world.

Many of these measures would be rendered ineffectual without tighter domestic laws on gun purchase and ownership. Countries with lax domestic gun laws create a permissive environment for illegal transfers and the misuse of small arms and light weapons, and undermine global initiatives at control. It is crucial that international agreements require states to establish stricter gun laws.

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