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The Global Reach of Small Arms

By Scott Sharon

The majority of the world can agree on strict controls to safeguard weapons of mass destruction. However, there is still reason to fear the large number of conventional weapons, known as “small arms and light weapons” that are circling the globe and are responsible for the many tragedies that make international headlines. From the deadly mass shootings that continue to plague the United States, to the daily firefights in several Middle Eastern countries, thousands of rifles, handguns, and even missile batteries find their way into the hands of those who would choose to commit violence on a massive scale. 

The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project founded in Geneva in 1999, was established to provide the public with information pertaining to all aspects of small arms. Working in tandem with researchers and government agencies, the Survey releases a yearly review that details global stockpiles, small arms treaties, and similar matters, in order to provide information to combat illegal arms sales. According to the Survey, “There is no standard reporting mechanism for official military small arms holdings.”  The same survey also states, “military-owned small arms also constitute the world’s largest centrally controlled stockpiles.”

The UN Panel defines “small arms” as handguns, assault rifles, and sub- and light machine guns. “Light weapons” include heavy machine guns, mounted grenade launchers, anti-aircraft batteries, and recoilless rifles. The irony in defining what constitutes certain types of weapons is that all have the potential capacity for unspeakable acts of violence. Yet an anti-tank weapon is simply referred to as a “light” weapon when it could easily be fired with enough precision to bring down a civilian airliner.

A whole host of actors use small arms and light weapons, including state security forces, armed groups, gangs, and civilians. These armed actors do not exert the same levels of control over their weaponry as states do, which poses a continued risk to society. The UN Register of Conventional Arms (UNROCA) collects data on military small arms. Thus far only Argentina, Trinidad, Tobago, and Togo have declared their total small arms inventories.  The loss of individual small arms is a pandemic. 

According to the Small Arms Survey on State Stockpiles, some examples include “hundreds of thousands of weapons lost by the Russian Federation’s Red Army in the 1990s, through looting in Albania in 1997, and during transfers of US supplies to Iraq in 2004–06. Millions more were lost in Iraq after the invasion and collapse of authority in 2003.” Countries where small arms were barely under lock-and-key ultimately require better safeguards to protect against theft. Nuclear material is well guarded, why can’t the same hold true for conventional weapons?

In their most recent issue, Small Arms Survey published a report that categorized countries with the largest known and estimated military-owned small arms stockpiles. Not surprisingly, both Russia and China emerged at the top, comprising 25 percent for each nation. Both countries produced massive amounts of small arms and light weapons during the Cold War that curried favor with insurgents in Vietnam, Egypt, and Cuba, and are now the prized possessions of thousands of terrorists and armed groups in Aghanistan and Iraq. 

Currently, Russia is allegedly arming the Assad regime in Syria as it continues to slaughter its own citizens on a daily basis. This is an example of small arms being funneled to another party to contribute to further bloodshed.  However, other countries should not be overlooked for their participation. Failed states such as Pakistan and Yemen are universally known for large, private ownerships of Russian-made AK-47’s, long the symbol of armed revolutionaries. Edward Helmore, author of  Gunsmakers  said “Americans bought over 200,000 AR-15s…in 2011,” as mentioned in Small Arms. The AR-15 was the same weapon that Adam Lanza used to gun down 26 children and teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School last December.

Thankfully, since the end of the Cold War, countries such as Germany and Russia have undergone large small arms destruction programs.  However, in the past few years, the procurement of newly manufactured weapons has been overshadowing surplus destruction, thereby negating the progress that has been made. Of the countries with the 20 largest military small arms inventories, only Ukraine and the United States have provided total data of their stockpiles. This leaves 18 other unaccounted for which allows more weapons to find their way onto the black market and into the hands of violent criminals and political and religious extremists.

Stricter laws should be implemented globally that serve to enforce already existing ones regarding the possession of small arms by armed actors.  Particularly, a standardized international reporting system responsible for global transparency and policy-making should be created. Under the system, state security forces, civilians, and private security companies should be regulated while keeping weapons out of the hands of gangs. Special attention must be paid to countries like North Korea, Iran, and Egypt where the marriage of separatist groups and illegal arms sales is rampant.



Scott Sharon is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.

[Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Will Lathrop]


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