Firearms and small arms control

In the aftermath of the victory over landmines, a new objective is coming into focus for many peace activists. But the politics of domestic gun control is very different from military weapons control

By Wendy Cukier | 1998-03-01 12:00:00

ACCESS to weapons increases the intensity and lethality of conflicts. In most conflicts underway, light weapons are the overwhelming cause of both civilian and combat deaths. In a study by the U.N. Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, 30 countries reported an annual total of more than 200,000 firearms deaths in homicide, suicide, and unintentional injuries ("accidents").

There are significant differences in the level of gun violence by region, gender, and age. In Canada, suicide with firearms is the principal problem; in Brazil it is murder; and in Finland it is "accidents" involving children. Industrialized countries tend to focus on crime, while developing countries may focus on conflict and peace building; however, the two are often inseparable. For example, in post-apartheid South Africa, violent crime is the great problem. The crime rate is high but it approximates that in the United States, France, or Norway. However, the murder rate is ten times the international average and increased 87% between 1987 and 1994. What is striking is not the rate of crime itself but the violence, which is fueled by the proliferation of firearms. In many parts of the world firearms trafficking is linked to the networks for drug trafficking and activities involving the state.

Peace building, public health, and crime prevention all recognize that a comprehensive approach to the problem is needed, ranging from interventions focused on the demand for firearms in the domestic and international context (socio-economic development, values building), interventions which control access to firearms (licensing, storage, embargoes), interventions on the supply of firearms (prohibitions on the manufacture of firearms which serve no purpose, standards for manufacture and identification, tracing, etc.), interventions to reduce supply (amnesties, buy-backs) and enforcement.

Firearms and small arms regulation are important to national self-interest. International information sharing can help support domestic firearms regulation initiatives against the arms industry's opposition. Even when a country implements strict domestic regulations, small arms and firearms may flow in from less regulated areas, including post-conflict zones. In countries as diverse as Canada, Brazil and Japan firearms smuggled from the United States are major problems.

Whether the concern is peace-building or crime and injury prevention, controlling the supply of the instruments of death and injury, the firearm, is critical. In both contexts there are three principal sources of firearms:

Therefore, tracking and controls on the supply of firearms from manufacture to final use are critical.

Recent resolutions of the United Nations Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Commission, endorsed by 33 countries, stated that because firearms tend to flow from unregulated to regulated areas, all countries should work towards international standards on domestic controls and well as international standards for tracking the flow of weapons. A recent OAS agreement is the first legally binding treaty of its kind (import-export, transparency, information collection and exchange) which will enhance cooperation on guns. It asserts that countries must take responsibility for what they export. These agreements parallel the recommendations of the U.N. Panel on Small Arms and the International Weapons Registry and they are an important step forward.

But vested interests oppose controls. The National Rifle Association (NRA), for example, has obtained NGO accreditation with the United Nations ECOSOC expressly to fight weapons control worldwide. The NRA explicitly maintains that access to firearms is a fundamental freedom and that arming for self-protection is an effective anti-violence strategy. They also argue that controls are ineffective and they cite the economic value of the gun trade.

Information about the links between access to firearms and death is critical. Information about effective strategies is critical. It is also important to highlight the costs of firearm/small arms violence - to put a face on the statistics and the costs of victimization, particularly to civilians, women, and children. Some have even countered economic arguments with economic arguments. The impact on the domestic firearms-related industries in Canada for example, was countered with an estimate that the economic value of lost life exceeded $6 billion per year, plus the cost to the economy when cities become almost inhabitable because of gun-related violence.

Dissemination of information about the extent of the problem is difficult because the data sources are fragmented and often inconsistent. In some states the information is suppressed. Language sometimes creates barriers. For example, the term "disarmament" presents problems to gun control activists who must accommodate legitimate gun owners. Also, defining "legitimate purposes and owners" in the international context is often difficult in the face of gross human rights violations by police, military, and governments. In Canada a network is being developed to address some of these gaps.


More information must be collected and shared. Admittedly there are many methodological challenges in research on firearms and small arms. Unique to the firearms regulation issue is the demand for a level of rigor and certainty that is absent in less political debates. However, waiting for more convincing evidence may prevent rigorous gun control since, beyond a certain point, the task of reducing the number of guns in the hands of private citizens becomes hopeless.

We need coordination among government departments and agencies to develop a coherent strategy to reduce death and injury caused by firearms. This should include:

Numerous Non-Government Organizations share an interest in firearms control. The Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have identified violence as a health problem and have given priority to injury prevention and women's health. Relief agencies such as the International Red Cross and OXFAM deal with problems of weapons. Peace building and faith-based organizations such as Ploughshares, The Friends World Committee on Consultation, and International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR) call for new solutions. Organizations for police, women, crime prevention, victims, and health have tackled aspects of the problem, along with research institutes such as Worldwatch and the Monterey Institute.

Wendy Cukier is President, Coalition for Gun Control and Professor of Administration and Information Management, Ryerson Polytechnic University, 350 Victoria Street, Toronto M5B 2K3. e-mail: Tel: 416-766-4804 Fax: 416-604-0209. Some of the research for this paper was supported by the Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development.

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998

Peace Magazine Mar-Apr 1998, page 12. Some rights reserved.

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