Small Arms Trade

Key Points

  • Light weapons are the principal cause of death in conflicts around the world, and the vast majority of casualties are civilians.
  • The easy availability of light military weaponry contributes to international crime, terrorism, and internal conflict, which are some of Washington’s foremost security concerns.
  • Both the black-market traffic in arms and the legal trade must be addressed.

Throughout the cold war, policy analysts and peace activists alike focused principally on nuclear (and, to a lesser extent, chemical and biological) weapons because of their potential for causing mass death and destruction. Scant attention was paid to limiting the production and traffic in small arms and light (man-portable) weapons—like assault rifles, mortars, grenades, and landmines. In fact, the major and mid-level military powers exported such weapons with abandon. It is somewhat ironic that, at the century’s close, government officials are beginning to recognize the spread of these low-end weapons as a major threat not only to human security (which has long been the case) but also to U.S. national security interests.

In his keynote speech before the 50th UN General Assembly, President Clinton highlighted the humanitarian and security threats posed by terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking. “No one is immune,” he said, “not the people of Latin America or Southeast Asia, where drug traffickers wielding imported weapons have murdered judges, journalists, police officers, and innocent passersby.” President Clinton urged states to work with the U.S. “to shut down the grey markets that outfit terrorists and criminals with firearms.”

The fact that military-style weapons are today in the hands of guerrilla groups, criminal enterprises, and other nonstate actors has heightened the concern of Northern governments. But these weapons are also a menace in the hands of many state security forces. Assault rifles, in particular, are a principal tool of repression used by police, internal security forces, and allied militias to crush opposition movements, eliminate dissidents, and terrorize populations. The 1997 Christmas massacre in Chiapas of 45 unarmed civilians—carried out by government-affiliated paramilitary forces with high-powered, Kalashnikov assault rifles—is one of countless examples.

Light weapons are also responsible for the vast majority of deaths and casualties in conflicts around the world. An estimated four million people have been killed in bloody fighting this decade, with more than 90% of today’s war casualties believed to be civilians. Nine out of ten of these deaths are attributed to small and light arms.

No one knows how many of these weapons are currently deployed with armies, criminals, and private security forces around the world, but estimates are in the hundreds of millions. The vast supply, though not directly causing conflicts, may encourage the resort to warfare (as opposed to other means of conflict resolution or state formation) and lengthen the duration of wars, thus creating more demand. When a conflict ends, its legacy is typically an armed and insecure society, which undermines the consolidation of peace and the reestablishment of governance and economic activity.

Criminals and combatants alike import their arms legally through international aid and trade or illegally through the black market. Although reliable statistics do not exist, legal and illegal trafficking in light weapons is flourishing as governments—-especially in the former Warsaw Pact countries—-downsize their militaries in the wake of the cold war and transfer their surplus light arms arsenals to overseas allies and cash customers. Weapons manufacturers have also stepped up overseas marketing, and the National Rifle Association has gone global.

In addition, many developing countries now manufacture small arms, often under license or with technology provided by industrialized countries. Brazil, Egypt, Israel, and China are now significant small-arms exporters. Finally, the massive stocks of light weapons that the U. S. and Soviet Union supplied to cold war proxies continue to recirculate, arming combatants and criminals in many areas. Peace processes in Central America, southern Africa, and elsewhere have only partially disarmed warring parties, and weapons from recently ended conflicts are often recycled to other wars or to bandits. In El Salvador, for instance, where the U.S. shipped tens of thousands of M-16 assault rifles and grenade launchers during the 1980s, firearm casualty rates are reportedly higher today than they were during the civil war.

These days, foreign relief and development workers, tourists, businesspeople, peacekeepers, and others are targeted. Increasingly, these victims are pressing their national governments to do something about the plague of small arms. Many of these groups, inspired by the success of the campaign against antipersonnel landmines, are now mobilizing to challenge policies that proliferate guns and grenades.

Problems with Current U.S. Policy

Key Problems

  • The Clinton administration’s effort to curb the illicit traffic in small arms has ignored the link between legal and illegal deals.
  • Despite the fact that drug traffickers and other criminals obtain guns via the U.S. gun market, Washington has failed to recognize lax domestic gun-sales laws as a threat to U.S. security.
  • Peacekeeping missions have, for the most part, failed to disarm combatants and destroy their arms, thus creating a second-hand supply for other conflicts or criminals.

President Clinton’s UN speech marked a cautious turning point in U.S. policy on small-arms exports. Following it, the administration agreed to a Mexican-backed proposal for “fast track” negotiations through the Organization of American States on a convention against the illicit manufacture of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition, and related materials. That treaty was signed by Washington and 27 other governments from the hemisphere in November 1997. In addition, the U.S. and its closest economic allies within the so-called “group of eight” are considering mechanisms for curbing illicit gun-running and the threats posed by transnational crime and terrorism. The Clinton administration has played a constructive role within the United Nations, both in a study on international firearms regulations and in a panel of government experts assessing the threat of small arms to UN peacekeeping operations. These studies also focus significantly on the black-market traffic in arms.

Despite these laudable initiatives, however, cold war-era policies of liberally trading light weapons continue apace. The U.S. government sells, gives, or licenses for export hundreds of thousands of guns and vast quantities of ammunition annually, and U.S. embassy personnel are under instructions to act as marketing agents, particularly in promoting gun sales to countries in the Western Hemisphere.

Since 1995 the Pentagon has given or cheaply sold enormous quantities of surplus rifles, pistols, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other light weapons to such countries as Mexico, Latvia, Taiwan, Bosnia, Israel, the Philippines, and Thailand. Augmenting this government weapons dealing, the State Department licensed over $470 million of light weapons for export in fiscal year 1996 in deals negotiated directly by gun manufacturers or middlemen. The Commerce Department, which has jurisdiction over industry-direct sales of shotguns and police equipment, approved an additional $57 million in exports. Although these dollar figures are small in the context of the overall arms trade (estimated at some $30 billion annually), at $100-500 per gun these transactions represent enormous quantities of weapons.

Many small arms of U.S. origin (some authorized, some not) enter into illegal circulation. In 1994, foreign governments reported 6,238 unlawfully acquired, U.S.-origin firearms. More than half—3,376—were discovered in Mexico. In 1996, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms received approximately 30,000 requests from other governments to trace weapons used in crimes. For the most part, these weapons were sold legally, either domestically or abroad, and later transferred to another party in contravention of U.S. law.

Theft or capture of state security forces’ arms is a major source of black-market supply around the world. The U.S. government rarely conducts end-use checks on weapons it has exported, greatly facilitating the diversion of weapons. Between 1989 and 1993 the State Department approved 108 licenses for the export of over $34 million of small arms to Mexico, but it performed only three follow-up inspections to ensure that the weapons were in the intended hands.

The domestic U.S. gun market is another major source of illicit arms. For several years, the Mexican government has complained that Mexican drug cartels (and other criminals) are getting many of their arms north of the border. Underscoring this point, several recent high-profile assassinations in Mexico were performed with guns purchased illegally in the United States. But stringent U.S. gun control is apparently considered politically unacceptable, even in the context of the avowed threat to national security posed by drug trafficking.

The administration fails to acknowledge that supplying arms to repressive states can spur demand by insurgents and civilians for countervailing weapons, usually obtained through the black market. Currently, Colombia and Turkey (as well as El Salvador during the 1980s) are examples where U.S. government arming of abusive police and military forces has likely fueled acquisition of weapons by guerrillas. Illegally acquired guns directly contribute to the warfare plaguing much of the world, since they constitute the principal weaponry of insurgents, for whom legal arms are usually not an option. Finally, the administration’s current approach does not deal adequately with the on-going devastation wrought by past U.S. small-arms shipments, including covert supplies. The U.S. and the Soviet Union donated huge quantities of rifles, machine guns, mortars, and other light weapons to allies during the cold war. Many of these weapons remain in active service today and contribute to a legacy of violence.

Toward a New Foreign Policy

Key Recommendations

  • Given the connection between light arms and today’s security and humanitarian threats, U.S. foreign policy should work to create a worldwide norm of restraint in the dispersion of small arms.
  • The administration should pursue both transparency and better oversight of U.S. arms exports and should promote similar levels of openness by other suppliers.
  • To reduce global conflict, the U.S. should eliminate light-arms exports to repressive governments and insurgents alike.

The Clinton administration has identified and begun to address the links between the small-arms trade and several of today’s security threats, such as drug trafficking and international terrorism. Yet many of the steps necessary to mitigate damage associated with the widespread proliferation of light weapons will require vision and political will well beyond what has so far been observed. Several changes are needed for elements of a new foreign policy on small arms.

First, comprehensive U.S. efforts must curb arms traffic on a national, regional, and global basis, recognizing the interplay between the legal and illegal small-arms trade. The reflexive approval during the cold war of large shipments of light arms to security forces and private actors should now give way to a new, more restrictive norm in light of the global humanitarian crisis posed by these weapons.

The determining factor for the export of small arms should be the intended government’s record of physical control and responsible use of past small arms-shipments. The U.S. and other supplying governments must take greater care to ensure nondiversion of the arms they supply, including careful analyses of end-user documentation, realistic assessments of the needs of the recipient governments, and spot checks to guard against illegal re-export. U.S. policy should be particularly restrictive in licensing U.S. companies to produce light weapons overseas because of the difficulty of controlling other countries’ production and exports. In 1988, for example, the General Accounting Office disclosed that South Korea had violated the terms of a license for the manufacture of M-16A1 assault rifles, producing in excess of the licensed quantities and exporting them without U.S. approval. The State Department classified the names of the third-country recipients, but a member of Congress disclosed that they were hostile destinations.

U.S. policy should bar all arms shipments to repressive forces. In February 1994, the State Department announced that it would deny licenses for the transfer of small or light arms and lethal crowd-control items to Indonesia. And in a 1997 report to Congress on Turkey’s use of U.S.-supplied weapons, the State Department disclosed that “U.S. policy is to restrict the sale of arms that clearly could be used to repress a civilian population, such as small arms and violent crowd-control devices.” (The report goes on to note that Turkey now produces the majority of its own pistols, rifles, and hand-held automatic weapons, many of them based on U.S. designs.) Yet, the U.S. continues to market bombers, helicopters, and other weaponry to the Indonesian and Turkish armed forces, both of which have heinous human rights records. By buoying repressive regimes, these large-arms transfers contribute to the quest for light weaponry by insurgents in Turkey and East Timor.

If implemented aggressively, a measure passed by Congress in November 1997 would bar U.S. military aid and arms to abusive units in foreign militaries. Yet, the Pentagon and State Department often do not know which military or police units are using U.S.-supplied arms. A necessary next step is the enactment of the Arms Sales Code of Conduct, which would establish firm human rights, democracy, and nonaggression criteria in U.S. law for all arms sales.

To facilitate government oversight, protect aid workers in the field, build trust among opposing forces, and serve as an early warning of potential trouble, greater transparency regarding exports of small arms is vital. Although America is the most transparent supplier, gathering data on U.S. small-arms exports is arduous. The State Department should disclose information on commercially negotiated arms shipments. (Currently, only information on license approvals is released to the public.) Such transparency would allow the nongovernmental community to aid in efforts to curb illicit arms traffic by questioning discrepancies in the data and by raising concerns. In addition, the U.S. government should use the example of its relative openness to press for similar levels of transparency by other exporting countries.

Enhanced domestic gun-control measures are also needed to prevent criminals and drug traffickers from obtaining lethal firepower in America. The Brady Bill (requiring a one-week waiting period and a criminal check prior to gun sales) and the current ban on sales of imported and locally manufactured assault rifles have complicated business for gunrunners. A national law limiting customers to one gun purchase per month would bolster these measures by curbing straw purchases of weapons that often end up on the black market.

Finally, a critical element of any good-faith change in U.S. foreign policy on small arms is a ban on the covert supply of weapons to insurgent forces by the U.S. government. The medium-term impact of massive, secret arms transfers by the Reagan administration in the 1980s has been devastating. Northern Pakistan, Afghanistan, Angola, and parts of Central America are today—a decade later—virtual arms bazaars, with destabilizing and deadly consequences. The U.S. must bear direct responsibility for collecting and destroying the massive quantities of light weaponry that it peddled in the 1980s.

Although covert arms transfers seem to have been curtailed, the press persistently reports such activities in northern Iraq and the Sudan. Given their proven record of unintended and disastrous policy consequences, such operations should be forgone, and an international norm should be established to bar government support for armed insurgency.

by Lora Lumpe, Director, Arms Sales Monitoring Project,
Federation of American Scientists