Published by the Federation of American Scientists Fund No. 38 (November 1998)


Highlighting U.S. government policies on arms exports and conventional weapons proliferation.



Controlling Small Arms at Home and Abroad

This issue focuses on the biggest killers today in community violence and civil conflict: small arms and light weapons.* These weapons’ relative small size, ease of use and low price make them the preferred arms of drug traffickers, criminals, insurgents, and terrorists, within the U.S. and overseas. Moreover, weapons so easy to conceal and transport are ideal items for black market trade. Thus small arms sold legally in the U.S. or exported by the U.S. government often end up in secondary markets completely beyond the control of the original seller. Therefore, to combat both domestic and international illicit trafficking of small arms, the government needs to keep better control over the legal trade of such weapons, rendering secondary sales more difficult. Yet U.S. government officials attuned to the dangers of small arms proliferation and misuse tend to focus on illicit trafficking alone, missing the crucial link with legal small arms sales.


Gun-Running in the United States…

Under federal law, it is a crime to sell a gun to felons, minors, mentally disturbed persons and other "prohibited possessors." Yet these individuals get their hands on weapons on a regular basis. How does this happen? Most often, through the resale or theft of guns purchased legally by eligible buyers. Individuals with clean records—known as "straw purchasers"—buy guns on behalf of criminals, traffickers, or individuals who do not want the gun traced back to them. Gun shows provide an ideal setting for such sales, as federally-mandated background checks are not required for private sellers, and vendors marketing their "private collections" are usually not keen to question their customers. Legally-acquired guns are also stolen from individual owners or from police or military arsenals. Better federal laws—such as a one-gun-a-month law, federal restrictions on gun shows, and other anti-trafficking laws—could help break the link between the legal trade of guns and the black market. (See pg. 2.)

… and Abroad

Gun trafficking in the U.S. usually runs from states with weak gun control laws—typically in the South—up to states like New York or New Jersey with high crime rates but tough gun control laws. This same pattern occurs internationally, making it profitable for U.S.-based traffickers to feed a gun pipeline stretching from Canada to South America. Mexican police seized almost 24,000 illegal firearms in 1995-96, mostly purchased in the U.S., and asked the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) in 1996 to trace around 4,300 firearms seized from drug-related crime scenes. Canada—with a 4,400 mile border with the U.S. and strict gun sale laws—is also seeing a rising number of smuggled U.S. weapons used in crimes. The same anti-gun running laws designed to prevent domestic trafficking would help reduce supply to criminals elsewhere in the Americas.

Small arms exported legally are often re-transferred illegally or later resold on the black market. By better monitoring end-use and re-transfers and helping destroy post-conflict surplus stocks, the U.S. government would help reduce this secondary market supply (see pg. 3). -TG

Controlling Domestic Sales


Tackling the problem of gun-running within and from the United States requires changes in federal firearms legislation. Tightening regulations on gun sales, restricting the quantity of guns a person may buy over a certain period, making resale or theft of guns more difficult, and limiting the type of weapons available to citizens will all help reduce the number of powerful guns in criminals’ or traffickers’ hands.


Keep the Brady Bill’s Waiting Period

The 1994 "Brady Law" required that prospective gun buyers wait 5 days for a background check. The 5-day waiting period will expire this November and be replaced by instant checks run through a national computerized database. Yet critics fear that the national system is missing critical information —such as records from some local police and courts—and cannot provide a completely reliable assessment of the buyer’s record. Extending the waiting period until the national system is fully functional would have allowed for supplementary checks where needed, but proposed legislation extending the Brady Law did not pass.


Close the Gun Show Loophole

Currently, federal and most state restrictions on gun sales only apply to licensed gun dealers, not to private sellers, who often trade at gun shows. Gun shows therefore provide a major loophole for felons or other ineligible buyers to purchase a wide variety of weapons and ammunition, with no waiting period and no questions asked. Outlaws like David Koresh and Tim McVeigh have been among those to take advantage of the gun show "free market."

Legislation introduced by Rep. Blagojevich (D-IL), and Sen. Lautenberg (D-NJ) would have subjected private sales at gun shows to the same laws as sales by registered dealers. Neither bill was acted on this Congress, but some states are holding referendums on whether to enact this rule at the state level.


Anti-Trafficking Laws

Limiting gun purchases to one every 30 days has successfully cut down interstate gun smuggling from Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina; gun sales in Maryland dropped 25% in the year after the law was enacted. Yet without a federal "one gun a month" law, gun traffickers can simply move their business elsewhere. In 1996, the ten states with the weakest gun control laws supplied 54.2% of guns seized in out of state crimes. To combat this trend, Rep. (now Senator-elect) Schumer (D-NY) introduced the "Twelve is Enough" anti-gun running bill.

Moreover, under federal law, a person must reside in the state in which he/she is buying a gun. Yet interstate gun resales are governed by vague restrictions on "gun trafficking." Rep. Schumer and Sens. Torricelli (D-NJ) and Durbin (D-IL) therefore introduced legislation to tighten the restrictions on interstate gun sales. None of the anti-trafficking laws passed this Congress.


"Smart" Guns

Some gun control proponents are seeking remedies for accidental injuries and gun theft through new technology, and at least one gun manufacturer is responding to the call. "Personalized" handguns with chips recognizing the owner’s fingerprint, hand size, or a special ring would prevent the easy retransfer of guns and would leave stolen guns useless. Colt’s Manufacturing, Inc. has seized this opportunity—and a $500,000 grant from the Justice Department—to increase sales among more safety-conscious gun owners. New Jersey, one of the strictest states on gun control, could be the first state to mandate "smart gun" technology on future weapons sales if legislators resist NRA and other pro-gun pressure. Other gun control advocates fear, however, that "smart gun" technology is just a marketing ploy that will boost gun sales without preventing accidents and misuse by gun owners or reducing the number of guns in circulation.


No Re-Import of Military Equipment

Military weapons are sought primarily by drug dealers, gun traffickers and other criminals, not hunters or sport shooters. The manufacture, sale, and possession of 19 types of assault weapons and other guns with more than one military feature were banned by the 1994 Assault Weapons Ban. But the import of military weapons has continued under loopholes in U.S. law.

This April, the Clinton Administration banned the import of 58 assault weapons that BATF found to be in violation of the 1968 Gun Control Act, which states that no assault weapon may be imported except for sporting purposes. Foreign manufacturers had modified many models to meet the letter of the law, but a BATF study found that 58 assault weapons could not be considered sporting guns. Legislation which would have exempted 600,000 weapons with import licenses approved before the ban was fortunately defeated, but new attempts may be made next Congress.

Up to 2.5 million "curios and relics"— U.S.-manufactured military weapons previously given away, sold, or taken as spoils of war by foreign militaries—could be re-imported into the country under another legal loophole. Some of these powerful weapons can be concealed (M1911 and M1911As) or converted to fully automatic (M-1 Carbines). Over 400 M1 semiautomatic rifles and pistols were used in crimes between 1995-96, according to the Washington Post.

Policy set by Presidents Reagan through Clinton have prevented the re-import of these guns, but a legislative battle is on to make the import ban permanent or eliminate it altogether—led by Senators Lautenberg, Boxer, and Kerry and Reps. Patrick Kennedy and Maloney on the ban side and Rep. Mollohan on the other.

Controlling International Transfers

Awareness-raising activities of certain countries and international and U.S. non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have led the Clinton administration to recognize that small arms proliferation poses a strategic threat. This summer, the U.S. government produced its first interagency policy paper on small arms, which focuses strictly on illicit gun sales. But the distinction the administration tries to make between legal and illegal sales is not so clear. A better, more comprehensive approach would call for close monitoring of the entire continuum from arms smuggling to U.S.-sanctioned sales, including the "gray market" in-between.


Who Gets Our Guns?

The U.S. government monitors only a small percentage of weapons transfers to ensure that they are delivered to the stated recipient and used as described in the export license (and in accordance with U.S. and international humanitarian and human rights law). The State Department’s "Blue Lantern" end-use monitoring program has successfully identified major violations of export licenses. But in FY 97, for $24.7 billion worth of State-authorized exports, only 510 licenses were submitted for verification; of those, only 379 were checked, with 56 unfavorable responses. With problems on almost 15% of verified sales, clearly many more sales should undergo end-use monitoring. Moreover, the Defense Department has an unstructured end-use monitoring program for its Foreign Military Sales that is said to meet "Blue Lantern standards." But the strictest standards are only applied to "sensitive sales," which do not include small arms. More resources should be dedicated to both programs to allow better monitoring of all types of transferred weapons.

Recipients of U.S. weapons may not re-transfer them without prior permission of the U.S. government. Yet U.S. firearms have been illegally sent to conflicts in Rwanda, Algeria, Turkey, and the former Yugoslavia. Investigations showing a pattern of illegal re-transfers from European Union states led the U.S. to crack down on small arms sales to our allies, beginning with a revocation of all outstanding firearms licenses to the UK. Since Britain now prohibits the sale of handguns, any exports to UK companies were obviously intended for reshipment. Restrictions on approved sales should also be applied to other countries with bad records of illicit resales or poor control over army or police arsenals.

Cleaning Up Our Mess

The U.S. government has supplied millions of firearms to countries and non-state actors involved in armed conflict. The continued presence of these long-lasting weapons after the fighting seriously impedes demilitarization and economic development. Arms collection and destruction programs—especially those that offer goods in exchange for civilians’ weapons—have had some success in Latin America, but are hampered by a lack of funds. The U.S. Agency for International Development would improve the effectiveness of its investments in such countries by also contributing to "goods for guns" programs.

Selling or giving away weapons to states already suffering from an overabundance of small arms (see table below) is another way the U.S. exacerbates the problems of post-conflict states. Such transfers should be stopped until true peace has been reestablished.


OAS Convention

In November 1997, the Organization of American States (OAS) approved the "Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and other Related Materials." The Convention seeks to reduce the illicit trade of these weapons by, for example, marking arms at manufacture and import and promoting cooperation on the control of arms shipments.

The Convention recently entered into force with ratification by Mexico, the Bahamas, and Belize. It was submitted to the U.S. Senate for consideration this summer, but was not acted on. The administration should make ratification—and the technological innovations needed for effective implementation—a priority for the next Congress.


The Key: Responsible U.S. Export Policy

The most significant step the U.S. government could take to limit the use of small arms against civilians worldwide would be to place tighter restrictions on U.S. arms transfers. The U.S. government needs to break from its tradition of selling or giving away large amounts of small arms to states who are undemocratic, actively or potentially involved in conflict and/or guilty of human rights abuses.

In a speech at the UN Security Council Ministerial on Africa in September 1998, Secretary Albright announced that arms exporting states "bear some responsibility" for a trade which "fuels conflict, fortifies extremism and destabilizes entire regions" in Africa and worldwide. She proposed establishing "responsible arms transfers that are effective worldwide," an "international center to collect and share information on arms transfers," and better enforcement of arms embargoes with a "UN clearinghouse" of information on violators.

Secreatary Albright’s strong statement must be followed by concrete actions, including support for a U.S. arms transfer code of conduct, which would prevent arms sales to repressive and aggressive states (see pg. 5). The State Department must also do more to promote transparency on small arms transfers by reporting all proposed arms transfers to Congress (many small arms deals fall under the current $14 million threshold for Congressional notification). It should also report direct commercial sales deliveries, since one has no way of knowing what percentage of last year’s $24.7 billion in authorized DCS sales—under which most small arms sales fall—were actually sent.


Select DCS Small Arms Licenses Approved for Export, FY 97


License Value in US $





El Salvador














South Africa




Note: These represent licenses approved by the State Department (direct commercial sales), not actual exports, for which data is not available.

105th Congress: Arms Transfer Highlights


Codes of Conduct

Code of Conduct legislation—which would establish human rights, democracy and non-aggression criteria for governments to be eligible to import American weapons—was not enacted in the 105th Congress, despite the work of lead sponsors Senator John Kerry (D-MA) and Representatives McKinney (D-GA) and Rohrabacher (R-CA). The House of Representatives passed the Code of Conduct last year as part of the State Department Authorization Act (see ASM No. 36), but the Code was eventually dropped in conference committee. A stand-alone bill with 80 co-sponsors was introduced in the House in September 1998 but did not advance before Congress adjourned.

Congress did, however, pass smaller but important measures that reflect Code principles. The Foreign Operations part of the omnibus spending bill prevents any arms sold to Indonesia from being used in East Timor. It also includes language sponsored by Senator Leahy (D-VT) which prohibits foreign military aid from going to a foreign security unit which the State Department found to have "committed gross violations of human rights," unless the responsible members of the unit are brought to justice.

The "Leahy Amendment" also prohibits funding for military training programs if a member of a unit was found to have committed gross human rights violations. In a move towards greater transparency about the multitude of U.S. military training programs, Congress will require the State and Defense Departments to produce a combined report on all military training provided to foreign military personnel.


Budgetary Bits

FY 1999 defense appropriations and omnibus spending bills provide resources for a variety of arms export-related programs, such as:


Landmines Update

Now that more than 40 countries have ratified the international Convention to Ban Landmines, the treaty is set to go into force this March—without a U.S. signature. The Defense Authorization Act repealed the landmine use moratorium that would have taken effect in February 1999, in a deal which included $118 million in the defense and omnibus spending bills for Sen. Leahy’s other priorities, humanitarian demining programs, new demining technology, assistance for survivors, and research into alternatives to landmines. The administration’s current policy is to sign the convention by 2006, if landmine alternatives are available.


Other Legislation

Fanning the Flames in the Middle East


F-16s and AMRAAMs to the U.A.E

In the spring of this year, the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) agreed to purchase as many as 80 Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter jets, worth an estimated $6 - 8 billion. The deal enjoyed support from Congress and the Executive branch, which felt that the sale would augment the U.A.E.’s defense capability, "add a significant stabilizing element to the overall strategic balance in the region," and fortify security relations between the U.S. and the U.A.E.

More recently, the Pentagon announced a potential $2 billion sale to the U.A.E. of thousands of advanced aircraft missiles, ammunition, and bombs intended to support the spring F-16 sale. Significantly, the U.A.E. will become the first country bordering the Persian Gulf to possess AMRAAMs, the U.S.’ most effective weapon for use in air-to-air combat.

The Pentagon justifies the sale of our best medium-range air-to-air missile technology to the volatile Middle East region by saying that the sale of the weapons "will strengthen the U.A.E. as a potential coalition partner, reducing the dependence on U.S. forces in the region while enhancing any coalition operations the U.S. undertakes."

Such a large influx of arms into the region, however, is likely to destabilize the region, accelerating the high-pitched arms race and increasing mutual distrust. For example, the sale of AMRAAMs to the U.A.E. may have been motivated by proposed AMRAAM sales this spring to Israel and Saudi Arabia. In another example of high-tech missile proliferation in the region, Egypt now seeks to buy 400 Patriot air defense missiles. Finally, the Gulf War taught us that supplying Gulf states with sophisticated weapons does not reduce the U.S.’ military and financial burden in times of conflict.


F-15s and F-16s to Israel

The U.S. Foreign Military Sales program is also gearing up for the sale of up to 60 C/D models of the F-16 to Israel. According to the Defense Department, these planes are needed to "augment Israel’s present operations inventory" and to enhance air-based self-defense capability.

Yet Israel already has about 260 F-16s, as well as many other types of sophisticated aircraft. A purchase of 50 additional F-16s will give them one F-16 aircraft for every 67 square miles of their territory, even though the effective operational range of an F-16 is approximately 621 miles.

Israel is also contemplating purchasing more Boeing F-15s for long range missions. The purchase of the F-15s and F-16s is expected to cost at least $2.5 billion, made affordable by $1.8 billion U.S. foreign military aid in FY 99.


FAS recommends… a little light reading!

Key Government Arms Transfer Reports


Fueling the Arms Race in the Developing World

The Congressional Research Service’s report Conventional Arms Transfers in Developing Nations: 1990-1997 provides an overview of arms transfers from the United States and other major suppliers to developing countries. Data is broken down by time period, region and major supplier, in addition to worldwide totals and a "top ten" recipients list.

Competition among major arms suppliers, primarily the United States, France and Russia, is intensifying as developing markets shrink in response to global economic difficulties. In 1997, worldwide transfer agreements with developing countries finally dropped back down to where they were before the post-Gulf War armament craze, to a "mere" $17.2 billion. Weapons suppliers are working harder to exploit comparative advantages; US industries, for instance, rely increasingly on developing countries’ need to maintain and upgrade previously purchased weapons systems.

Unfortunately, these figures don’t tell the whole story. CRS leaves out U.S. industry-negotiated direct commercial sales because the deliveries figures are difficult to determine with any accuracy. Also missing is the U.S. role in arming the developing world through its multitude of military assistance programs, including arms giveaways.


Billions of Weapons In Black and White

For the second year, Section 655 of the Foreign Assistance Act requires the Administration to itemize sales, licenses, and gifts of military equipment for the previous fiscal year. The "655 Report" provides the most detailed information available on U.S. arms transfers during FY 1997; this is the place to find out exactly how many pistols and revolvers were authorized for shipment to South Africa, what kind of missiles were sold to Indonesia, or how much money was spent training the Turkish military. Unfortunately, for industry-negotiated direct commercial sales (DCS) the 655 report only lists export licenses approved, not actual deliveries. With $25 billion of licenses approved in FY 1997, more transparency on these sales is critical.


Millions of FMS Fees Uncollected

American taxpayers heavily subsidize the U.S. arms industry, paying approximately $30 billion per year to develop arms and around $6-7 billion annually to market and finance arms sales. The Arms Export Control Act requires that some of these costs be returned by charging "recoupment" fees—a percentage of the price proportional to the amount of government research and development funding—to foreign customers buying arms through the foreign military sales program. A recent GAO investigation, however, found that even these modest attempts to reimburse taxpayers have been failing; in a survey of 30 such sales negotiated by the DoD, investigators found over $183 million in R&D recoupment fees have gone uncollected.

According to the GAO, military agencies that manage the sales do not follow proper procedures for reporting deliveries. Thus buyers benefit from artificially low prices, and sellers’ profits are higher because they do not reflect R&D costs, all paid for by U.S. taxpayers.


Write your member of Congress for a copy of the CRS Report. For the DCS section of the 655 Report, call Gwen Williams at the State Dept., 202-647-6968; for other sections, call the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (formerly the Defense Security Assistance Agency) at 703-604-6617. For a copy of the GAO Report, call the GAO’s document distribution center, 202-512-6000, or look on their website,

Additional Recent Government Documents

Annual Report of the Secretary of Defense to the President and the Congress, 1998, Washington, U.S. GPO, 1998.


The Anti-Drug Effort in the Americas: a Mid-Term Report, (hearing before the Subcomm. on the Western Hemisphere of the House Internat’l Rel. Comm., 16 July 1997), Washington: U.S. GPO, 1998.


China: U.S. and European Union Arms Sales Since the 1989 Embargoes (testimony before the Joint Economic Comm.), GAO [T-NSIAD-98-171], April 28, 1998.


Customs Service: Inspection Personnel and Workloads, GAO [GGD-98-170], August 1998, 19 pp.


The Debate on NATO Enlargement, S. Hrg. 105-285 (Hearings before the Senate Foreign Rel. Comm., 7, 9, 22, 28, 30 October and 5 November 1997), Washington, U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.


Defense Inventory: Action Needed to Avoid Inappropriate Sales of Surplus Parts, GAO [NSIAD-98-182], August 1998.


DOD Counterdrug Activities: Reported Costs Do not Reflect Extent of DOD’s Support, GAO [nSIAD-98-231], September 23, 1998.


Drug Control: U.S.-Mexican Counternarcotics Efforts Face Difficult Challenges, General Accounting Office [NSIAD-98-154], June 30, 1998.


The Effects of Offsets on the U.S. Subcontractor Base: An Industry-Government Forum, (proceedings), U.S. Dept. of Commerce, Texas Dept. of Economic Development, and Nat’l Defense Industrial Assoc., April 1, 1998.


Excess Defense Articles: Grants and Sales to Allies and Friendly Countries, Congressional Research Service (Report 98-261 F), updated April 10, 1998.



Federal Surplus Ships: Government Efforts to Address the Growing Backlog of Ships Awaiting Disposal, GAO [nSIAD-99-18], October 22, 1998.


Foreign Affairs Reform and Restructuring Act of 1997 and Fiscal Year 1998 International Affairs Budget Request, S. Hrg. 105-292, Washington, U.S. GPO, 1998.


Foreign Policy Reform Act: Markup of H.R. 1486 (Markup before the House Internat’l Rel. Comm., 30 April, 1 and 6 May 1997), Washington, U.S. GPO, 1998.


International Drug Control Policy: Colombia (Hearing before the Subcomm. on Nat’l Security, Internat’l Affairs, and Criminal Justice of the House Government Reform and Oversight Comm., 9 July 1997), Washington, U.S. GPO, 1998.


Iran and Proliferation: Is the U.S. Doing Enough? The Arming of Iran: Who is Responsible?, S. Hrg. 105-289 (Hearings before the Subcomm. on Near Eastern Affairs of the Senate Foreign Rel. Comm., 17 April and 6 May, 1997), Washington: U.S. GPO, 1998.


Joint Training: Observations on the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Exercise Program, GAO [NSIAD-98-189], July 1998, 23 pp.



Legislation on Foreign Relations through 1997, Volume 1-A (joint committee print of the Senate Foreign Rel. and the House International Rel. Comm., March 1998), Washington: U.S. GPO, 1998.


Report on the Security Needs in Latin America and the Impact of Lifting the Existing U.S. Ban on High Technology Sales to the Region (report by the State Dept, to Congress 25 June 1998). Not published?


United Arab Emirates: U.S. Relations and Prospective F-16 Aircraft Sale, Congressional Research Service (Report 98-436 F), May 7, 1998.


U.S. Army School of the Americas: Background and Congressional Concerns, Congressional Research Service (Report 97-726 F), updated July 28, 1998.


U.S. Counter-Narcotics Policy Towards Columbia (hearing before the House Comm. on Internat’l Rel., 31 March 1998), Washington: U.S. GPO, 1998.


U.S. Munitions List and International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), Congressional Research Service, June 15, 1998.


United States Policy Toward Indonesia (Hearing before the Asia and Pacific Subcomm. of the House Internat’l Rel. Comm., 7 May 1997), Washington, U.S. GPO, 1998.