a. Reduce existing stockpile

b. Reduce supply of new weapons

c. Close the gates between the legal and illegal markets

d. Reduce motivation for acquiring guns

A thousand people die each day from gunshot wounds, and three times as many are left with severe injuries. If the death, injury and disability resulting from small arms were categorized as a disease, it would qualify as an epidemic. Yet the media and popular perception tend to suggest that gun violence is simply an unavoidable consequence of human cruelty or deprivation, rather than a public health problem which can be prevented or at least reduced.

The circumstances of gun violence vary so enormously, it would be simplistic to suggest a single solution. A comprehensive approach, reflecting the multi-faceted nature of the problem, is needed to bring down the grim toll of global death and injury. Nonetheless, the high school massacres in the US, the armed gangs in Brazil or the systematic sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo all share a common denominator: the availability of guns (or small arms, as they are known in UN circles).

Practical steps toward reducing the availability and misuse of small arms can be classed under four headings:
1. Reducing the existing stockpile
2. Reducing the supply of new weapons
3. Closing the gates between the legal and illegal markets
4. Reducing the motivation for acquiring guns (demand)


The existing global small arms stockpile is huge -- at least 875 million guns, according to the Small Arms Survey in Geneva. Less than 25 per cent of these are in the possession of armies, police or other government agencies; the remaining three-quarters are in the hands of civilians. Guns on earth outnumber cars by about 40 per cent. How can we reduce this enormous pool of weapons?

Reducing the existing State stockpile. The best place to start is with government arsenals, which by nature are easier to identify and affect than the diffuse civilian holdings. With large amounts of weaponry concentrated in a few locations, a focus on the State stockpile is the quickest way to make a dent in the sheer number of guns on the planet. Governments may consider large armouries to be necessary for national defence, but they overestimate their need: according to the Small Arms Survey, 38 per cent of military small arms in government arsenals are surplus to requirements. This represents not only a large waste of resources (in buying the guns, recording them, storing, maintaining and guarding them), but also a serious hazard to military and civilian populations living near accumulations of surplus weapons. In addition to the physical danger of explosions, surplus stocks act as a magnet for traffickers, insurgents and criminals, often with tragic results.

The grave threat posed by surplus guns and ammunition has been formally recognized by the UN small arms process. A UN Group of Governmental Experts on surplus ammunition was established by the General Assembly in late 2007, and disposal of surplus weapons was one of the priority topics at the Third Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and Light Weapons in 2008. The consistent advice is that governments should systematically identify and destroy their surplus stock.

Reducing the existing civilian stockpile. Disarming civilian populations is more difficult than disarming governments. Nevertheless it is arguably more necessary, given that civilians constitute the overwhelming majority not only of gun owners, but also of the victims and perpetrators of gun violence.

Many countries have implemented voluntary programs encouraging citizens to surrender weapons in exchange for cash, household goods or other benefits to individuals. In "Weapons for Development" schemes, the reward for handing in guns is development assistance to improve educational, economic and security conditions for the entire community. The success of voluntary collection has varied around the world: ad hoc local initiatives in US cities have mostly recovered small numbers of guns. Larger quantities tend to be recovered where the collection is part of a coherent national policy and where people perceive that local security is improving.

Obligatory weapons collection programmes also have mixed results. Australia and Brazil removed huge numbers of guns from circulation (650,000 and 450,000 respectively) with programmes based on a dual incentive: (a) cash compensation and (b) legislative changes making it harder to qualify to own guns legally. The latter meant that many owners faced the possibility of being in illegal possession of their previously legal weapons if they kept them after the buyback. Importantly, both of these buybacks were part of comprehensive national initiatives including massive public awareness programs, reforms to police procedures, etc. On the other hand, a forcible disarmament program in Uganda, where soldiers searched houses and assaulted civilians forcing them to surrender their arms, recovered relatively few guns and exacerbated the feeling of insecurity among the population.

Destruction of existing weapons. Whether from state arsenals, defeated enemies, arrested criminals or civilian owners, small arms that are in surplus, obsolete, seized, surrendered or otherwise removed from circulation should be destroyed. Though this may seem an obvious point, it appears to have eluded many governments. They downsize their arsenal to save costs or to comply with international agreements, then seek to make a profit by selling the weapons, either locally or overseas. Rather than reducing the global stockpile, such a practice simply redistributes it, shifting the danger from one community or country to another. This was famously exemplified by the fire-sale of tens of millions of guns from ex-Soviet armies at the end of the cold war, with catastrophic results for Africa. This practice still thrives in the Balkans. For example, in 2004 Bosnia had more than 850,000 small arms left over from the 1990s war. Some 100,000 (at a maximum) have since been destroyed, while far more have been exported -- supposedly to Afghanistan and Iraq, but officials there are unable to say where the weapons are.


The small arms market is truly globalized. Half the world's countries produce small arms or ammunition, and 100 per cent of countries buy them. Though at least 875 million guns are already in circulation, it appears the market is not saturated, since an estimated 8 million new small arms are manufactured each year.

One practical step toward disarmament is to slow the stream of new weapons coming into circulation. Thus far, no Government has been prepared to suggest reducing worldwide production, even by imposing maximum quotas. However, most countries now acknowledge the need for some limitations or constraint -- or at least rules -- on international sales of these arms. Reducing the international supply of new weapons: The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). Some international transfers of weapons are obviously irresponsible: for example, if the weapons will arm an uprising against a legitimate government, or if they will be diverted into the hands of organized criminal gangs. The Arms Trade Treaty is an initiative to stop the most irresponsible transfers from going ahead, by asking officials from the exporting and transit countries to consider how the weapons are likely to be used and where they may end up. The proposed treaty would create a global standard for governments to apply when deciding whether to authorize an international transfer of small arms or other conventional weapons.

The ATT has been discussed at the UN since 2006, and the General Assembly voted overwhelmingly in 2007 to begin formal deliberations on the topic. Member States are currently engaged in that deliberation process, known as the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG). The OEWG met in March and again in July 2009 and will meet four more times over the next two years. The eventual outcome should be a legally binding treaty enumerating the criteria for refusing an international sale or transfer of weapons.

The contentious question is what the global standard should be, or how it should be expressed. A few criteria are easy to agree. For example, if the buyer's country is under a UN arms embargo, an arms transfer should be refused. But what if the buyer is located across the border, in a country neighbouring an embargoed zone -- proximity creates the risk of diversion, but does that mean the buyer's request should be refused? Or what if the embargo is not imposed by the UN, but by a specific State or group of States (eg the EU) -- should the ATT require other countries to refuse the sale, thus giving global effect to a bilateral or regional ban? All States agree that weapons should not be supplied to terrorists, but under whose definition of 'terrorist'?

In addition, there is the matter of which arms should be covered by the treaty. Some States want to fall back on a convenient formula provided by the UN Register of Conventional Arms, but this is not comprehensive.

Under the banner of the Control Arms campaign, thousands of civil society groups around the world are campaigning for an ATT based squarely in the protection of human rights and human security. We are pushing for a treaty that will link each arms transfer decision with States' existing obligations under international law. This means a transfer should be blocked if there is a substantial risk that those arms will be used in serious violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. In principal this proposal should not be controversial, since all member States have already agreed to uphold the provisions of the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Geneva Conventions. However, most States have previously not considered these obligations to be related to decisions about arms transfers.

Some countries have opposed the inclusion of the phrase "human rights" in the treaty, fearing that the phrase will be arbitrarily applied to block their acquisition of weapons for legitimate military or police use. (No need to fear, as the UN Charter protects such legitimate acquisitions.) Meanwhile some Western countries have argued against this phrase as "it makes it difficult to get agreement". Of course, it would be easier to get agreement on a weak treaty than on a strong one, because a weak treaty would not require much change in countries' existing policies. And a weak treaty would still have some symbolic value .

Sorry, no. Mass killings, intimidation and torture are real, not symbolic. Only a strong, comprehensive treaty based explicitly on international legal obligations will be sufficient to prevent such abuses, and to reduce the supply of new weapons to the abusers.

Reducing the domestic supply of new weapons. While most countries permit civilian ownership of small arms, they are at the same time seeking to contain it to moderate levels. What is considered a moderate or acceptable level of gun ownership in society is coming increasingly under scrutiny as governments recognize the need to strengthen their gun laws. Driven by regional and international agreements, popular pressure and expert advice, gun laws around the world are growing tighter and more uniform. The emerging norms include integrated renewable licensing and registration of firearms and owners, based on proof of a legitimate reason for possession, limits on the types and number of weapons a civilian can possess, minimum age limits, checks of criminal record and other personal information, safe storage requirements etc. As the new laws reduce the proportion of the population legally entitled to buy or possess arms, as well as the number each licensee can own, the flow of new weapons into the country will slow.


In relation to small arms, a crucial step toward disarmament is to recognize the link between the legal and illegal domains. The stock of illegal small arms is actually a stock of formerly legal arms. This is because almost all the small arms in the world were produced legally, manufactured in factories authorized (and often owned) by a national government.

It is only when the product leaves the factory and enters the chain of commerce that the possibility of becoming illegal arises. The same gun can be legal or illegal at different points in that chain of commerce, depending on who has it in their possession.

As an example, a factory sells small arms legally to government agencies or to gun dealers. Due to insecure storage by the purchasers, some of those legal guns are then stolen, thus becoming illegal. Another common way for government weapons to become illegal is when the users (e.g. soldiers or police) sell their duty weapons to criminals in order to supplement their inadequate incomes.

The journey from legal to illegal may pass through 'grey' patches where the legal status of a weapon is ambiguous. Retiring or demobilizing soldiers frequently keep the guns they previously used for work, a custom which is legal in some countries. However, an ex-soldier, unable to find another job, sometimes uses the gun to rob a store (illegal); or sells it to a friend (illegal). In a non-conflict country like the USA, a private citizen with no criminal record might buy a gun from the ex-soldier (legal) or a gunshop (legal), and later sell it at a garage sale to a stranger (legal or illegal, depending on local state or city law). The stranger may transfer it to a criminal gang (illegal); or he may simply keep the gun at home (possibly legal), from where it may be stolen by a burglar (illegal), or taken to school by his adolescent son to impress his friends (illegal). The lethal potential of a firearm remains the same, regardless of its legal status.

Since the illegal arms market is supplied (intentionally or otherwise) by the legal arms industry, the key to reducing the former is to exert stronger control over the latter, to prevent legal weapons from crossing over into the illegal domain. That control regime should include measures to track weapons and identify the point of diversion, systems to ensure physical security, and built-in mechanisms for monitoring and verification. Weak points in a regulatory framework become loopholes inviting exploitation by traffickers and by ordinary people seeking to avoid bureaucratic procedures.

Identifying points of diversion: the ITI. UN Member States took a significant practical step toward disarmament in 2005 with the creation of the International Tracing Instrument for small arms (ITI).1 This global agreement commits all countries to labelling guns with identifying numbers or marks so they can later be traced by Interpol if necessary. (Many people would be astonished to learn that such a requirement does not already apply to small arms, unlike motor vehicles which have long been required to bear unique identifying VIN marks.)

The ITI requires the marking of existing small arms already in State stockpiles, and of new guns at the point of manufacture or import. States must keep accurate and comprehensive records of small arms in their jurisdictions. The implementation of these measures will advance disarmament by allowing police to retrace the history of a gun recovered on the scene of a crime or conflict, and thus identify the dealer, factory or armoury from which the weapon was diverted.This improves the chances of finding and prosecuting the trafficker, and of closing any legal or procedural loopholes which may have enabled the diversion. Thus the ITI is both a tool for punishing criminals and for preventing the growth of the illegal small arms stockpile.
Unfortunately the ITI is a voluntary agreement, not legally binding. Nonetheless, many countries are demonstrating admirable commitment to its implementation. International donors such as the USA have also provided finance and machinery to help poorer countries set up their marking and tracing systems -- a concrete and practical step toward disarmament.

Stopping diversion from States or armed groups: Stockpile security, DDR and SSR. State arsenals are a significant source of small arms entering the illegal market, through theft, corruption or plain short-sightedness. The most basic precaution against such diversion is to implement proper stockpile security. This is firstly a matter of physical security, ie robust construction of storage buildings and locks, round-the-clock guards etc. The worst example of failure in this regard was the raids by civilians on Albanian government arsenals in 1997, in which 650,000 guns were stolen. Stockpile security also requires strict protocols and practices, supported by adequate training and a high standard of professionalism among staff.

As mentioned earlier, the Biennial Meeting of States in July 2008 addressed the issue of stockpile security. States agreed to apply stringent recordkeeping on stockpiles, to alert authorities to leakage or diversion and to help identify surplus weapons. Member States agreed to tighten storage conditions overall. Civil society also recommended rigorous staff training and disaster preparedness, and reviewing the transport of arms and ammunition to stockpiles. These measures are intended to prevent explosions, but also to stop the movement of weapons from legal State arsenal to the illegal domain.

Stockpile security is closely related to security sector reform (SSR), another tool for stopping the diversion of weapons from the State to the illegal domain. SSR includes anticorruption and accountability measures to stop State officials from selling, renting or lending government weapons to non-State actors. Many governments also need to reform their 'legitimate' but short-sighted traditional practices relating to weapons, especially at moments of transition. For example, when a state agency decides to upgrade its standard-issue firearm to a higher calibre, it may hope to raise money for the upgrade by selling the obsolete weapons on the open market. Likewise, when members of the police or army retire, are made redundant, or when people are demobilized from official or unofficial armed forces, they are often allowed to keep their military firearms -- as a parting gift, a badge of honour, a reward for service. In some countries current or former soldiers, police, senior civil servants and/or parliamentarians are automatically exempted from the national firearms licensing requirements, and are allowed to acquire as many weapons as they wish without records being kept. All these scenarios open the gate for guns to migrate from legal to illegal stockpiles.

One aspect of SSR which has received substantial support from donors is Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR). Whenever a war comes to an end, large numbers of young people -- mainly men -- find themselves unemployed and armed. DDR is a process to defuse this dangerous combination by helping ex-combatants return to civilian life, with proper training, employment, counselling etc. However, the first D stands for disarmament, removing the returnees' guns, to prevent them being used in crime or trafficked. Thus DDR is a short-term measure for preventing diversion of weapons to the illegal market. Longer term prevention requires the implementation of a legal framework to regulate firearms, as in other societies that are not post-conflict.

Stopping diversion from civilians. An estimated 75 per cent of small arms are in civilian hands. This encompasses all kinds and categories of arms and owners: security guards' pistols, farmers' shotguns, hunting rifles, collectors' displays, retailers' stocks, gangsters' crime weapons, as well as the many millions of guns sitting in homes and cars around the world for no particular reason or in the general name of security.

Part of this huge private arsenal consists of illegal guns (ie in the hands of people not entitled to possess them) and part consists of legal or semi-legal (grey) guns. Due to lack of data we can only guess at the relative distribution between legal and illegal. We know that many illegal guns came originally from Government stockpiles. Others have come from private owners, either deliberately through trafficking or unintentionally through loss, theft or private transfers. Globally, the private civilian stockpile is less accountable, far less strictly guarded and three times as plentiful as its state counterpart -- all qualities that support easy diversion of weapons to the illegal sector.

The best way to reduce diversion from the civilian stockpile to the illegal market is to reduce the size of the civilian stockpile, slow the arming of the population, and strengthen regulation of civilian ownership. Reducing the number of owners is reducing the number of potential points of diversion. Strengthening controls makes it much harder for guns to migrate into the criminal market. For example, a regulatory framework without firearm registration enables an owner to sell the weapon to a private buyer easily, without having to consider whether the buyer is legally authorized to acquire it. On the other hand, a regime that includes firearms registration necessarily imposes a higher degree of responsibility. The gun is registered in the seller's name with the State; thus the seller cannot transfer the ownership unless the State confirms that the buyer is authorized to acquire the weapon. This measure, firearm registration, is perhaps the single most effective tool in stopping diversion of legal small arms from civilians.

The other provisions are also anti-diversion and anti-trafficking measures, by stopping people from acquiring large numbers of guns and ensuring that the purchase or disposal of a gun is not a decision to be taken lightly. National firearm laws should recognize small arms as a product manufactured for killing, and therefore a product requiring strict control.


As in other fields of disarmament, reducing the danger of small arms also requires consideration of demand. What has motivated us to accumulate nearly 900 million guns on the planet, and how can we re-direct that motivation?

Governments have some practical, prosaic reasons for acquiring small arms; but remember that nearly 40 per cent of guns in their arsenals are surplus. This suggests that government buying habits are driven by ideological, political or commercial factors not tied to actual security needs.

One of the benefits of the UN small arms process is that it has enabled a discussion of a new security paradigm. This new model recognizes that (a) threats to national security are more likely to come from within their borders than from outside attack, (b) the major security threats are not military but related to transnational topics such as disease, natural resources, flows of refugees, international organized crime, and (c) the price States are paying for small arms proliferation and misuse is too high, especially since it is preventable. This process and its companion projects have enormous potential to affect the mindset of Governments in relation small arms, and to encourage genuine disarmament progress. (The emphasis on international cooperation and assistance in the small arms process is especially helpful in this regard.)

What about the private individuals who control three-quarters of the global arsenal, and their motivation for acquiring arms? Again, there are some practical applications where guns are simply tools for feeding one's family or doing one's job. But the less rational factors driving demand among Governments also have their counterparts at the level of individuals -- fear of the unknown, isolation, belief in the use of force to retain control, market and media pressure, masculine identity etc. Though these feelings may be irrational, they have a real impact. When translated into gun ownership they create insecurity for households, communities and countries as a whole. Paradoxically, people buy firearms because they feel insecure; and the result is more insecurity.

The single most important step toward reducing demand for small arms is to enhance security, both in the reality and the perception. Strengthening security depends primarily on States and their policies to address the root causes of insecurity, relating to poverty, health, human rights, criminal and social justice. Improving perceptions of security involves many additional actors, including civil society and the media. Policies to reduce gun ownership provide benefits on both fronts, increasing both actual and perceived security, since the reason people want to have guns is because other people have them. Reducing the level of small arms proliferation is crucial in interrupting the spiral of insecurity.

Practical steps toward disarmament include regulation, procedural reform, reassurance, information and persuasion. The challenges are significant, but countered by the certain knowledge that doing nothing will produce an outcome which is more dangerous and even harder to defuse.


[1]International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons (2005)