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Global Trends in Small Arms Trafficking

The trafficking of small arms continues to be a global problem, especially given the rise of insurgent groups such as the Islamic State and recent high-profile episodes of gun violence. David A. Andelman, editor emeritus of World Policy Journal, sat down with Aaron Karp, a senior consultant at Small Arms Survey, Geneva, and a senior lecturer in the department of political sciences of Old Dominion University, and Matt Schroeder, a senior researcher at Small Arms Survey, to discuss the trends in global small arms trafficking and what can be done to address the issue.

DAVID ANDELMAN: Small Arms Survey has done some really remarkable work in identifying the scope and the nature of the traffic and possession of small arms. Where do we stand in terms of the number of small arms, particularly in private hands? Let’s start globally and then move on to different parts of the world. Where is the largest concentration?

AARON KARP: The old number, which we still use, is 875 million small arms—that’s exclusive small arms, firearms—worldwide. Of that number, at that time, about 34 percent were in the United States. That concentration has increased since then. Americans purchase over 14 million new guns in 2013, the last year for solid data.

DA: And how does that compare with the rest of the world?

AK: We don’t have a comparably good figure for the rest of the world, but somewhere between 4 and 7 million new firearms for the rest of the world probably would be accurate.

DA: So what does the trend look like? Is the trafficking of small arms accelerating? Is it re-concentrating in certain areas? What does it look like in those terms?

MATT SCHROEDER: We don’t have any comparable aggregate data on trafficking. There are folks that have put forward estimates, but those estimates are best guesses. It’s really hard to talk about global trends in trafficking because the data that we have, even proxy data, doesn’t even begin to capture the trade. And I will say that it really is specific to different regions and even to different countries, and it changes over time often. So patterns in the Middle East and North Africa differ dramatically from trafficking patterns elsewhere, and those patterns will shift—and will sometimes be upended—by significant events, such as the collapse of government control over arms depots. When this happened in Libya, a flood of weapons entered the country and then started to trickle out into the region. Periods of instability that don’t necessarily lead to government collapse can also significantly change trafficking dynamics. In Iraq and in Syria, where there are active, bloody, all-consuming proxy wars, we’ve seen significant upticks in the quantities of sophisticated missiles that are rarely seen outside of government control.

DA: Those aren’t really considered small arms though, are they?

MS: We consider shoulder-fire surface-to-air missiles and portable anti-tank missiles as light weapons. They’re on the upper end technologically and size-wise, but they are considered light weapons.

DA: We usually have the feeling that so much more weaponry, including small arms, is concentrated in war zones like Syria, Libya, and so on. Is the intensity of penetration substantially higher there than in the West, or is it only concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of amount of people who are actually combatants?

AK: I think the natural tendency to look for symmetry between the significance of events and the physical scale of problems is very misleading. The biggest problems often don’t involve the biggest number of weapons. What we’ve seen instead is—especially with trafficking, to go back to that theme—is enormous sensitivity to very small quantities of equipment. European terrorism is a classic example where there is proliferation—there’s trafficking, including automatic weapons moving from southeastern to Western Europe. The numbers of weapons involved is exiguous, but the sensitivity to those numbers is extraordinary. Much the same thing in the United States, where tiny numbers of terrorist incidents involving what are, in absolute numbers, small numbers of fatalities, have enormous political repercussions.

DA: What about a trend in the desire to possess weapons? It’s been a year or so now since there’s been a substantially visible increase in terrorism in Europe in this wave. Do you have a sense that the there is a tendency for ordinary people to arm up in the face of this sort of thing? And does that concern you?

AK: European arms buying doesn’t show a dramatic change. It’s actually down in a lot of countries. That’s largely because the response has been policy-oriented, and the countries have decided as a whole they don’t want to have more weapons; they’ve made it difficult. Some of them have become much more restrictive. Germany, for example, has undertaken a series of reforms that made it more difficult to own weapons at home. We also have a very important EU initiative on this, which is standardizing the regulations on weapons ownership to some extent, and standardizing reporting and recording. So, you see very different trends.

DA: Does that trend simply drive the trafficking underground, or is that not necessarily the case?

AK: There’s this big debate over how easy it is to get an illegal weapon in countries that are restrictive, and this goes back to especially the November attacks in Paris, and the Charlie Hebdo attacks before that. Personally, I don’t think it is very easy to buy weapons illegally in most countries; I would not know how to do it. Although its effects are pretty obvious, the illegal market is very elusive in some respects.

DA: Let’s go back to the war zones though, like Syria and Libya. Other than the people who are actually the combatants, who themselves will be in sum either given or manage to obtain a weapon of small arms, among the populace as a whole, what is the tendency to trend there in those parts of the world? In other words, how far out into the population does gun possession go that is inherently unstable, even by people who don’t want any part of the conflict if they can help it?

AK: There’s a lot of small arms surveying that has been done on East Africa, focusing on Kenya, Uganda, Southern Sudan, and Somalia. The arming of tribesmen is interesting. You’ve got pastoral cultures and you have some genuine combatant groups that are there that are very important. But mostly what you see is armed tribal-identifying groups, and they basically against each other, and against the combatants. They’ve got a really heavily armed situation, and very little government authority.

DA: So they really do feel a need to defend themselves in some fashion, because presumably the national order has broken down in some respects and can’t defend them.

AK: This is another classical debate: was the state ever present there? And the answer is basically no, the state never was more than an intermittent presence, and now security has become a serious concern. The state never was able to maintain security in the region, so you’ve got a do-it-yourself mentality.

DA: So let’s look at the un-combatant parts of the world, such as East Asia. How much of a penetration is there in that part of the world? I gather that in places like Singapore, it’s a very highly regulated society, so I would gather that most firearms are in the possession of law enforcement and that’s about it, or no?

AK: Yes, Singapore is a really low-ownership country. It is one of several countries in the region that are really low-ownership, such as Indonesia and Malaysia.

DA: What moves that? Is it in fact a restrictive government regulation system or just cultural reasons?

AK: Japan is a classical example that has had a strong policy for a long time. Japan banned firearms in the 17th century.

DA: Why?

AK: This gets really debated. Were the shogunates trying to avoid an arms race between each other? There’s that aspect. Or were they trying to suppress social revolution? Or was it simply to maintain class dominance? A firearm made a peasant the equal of a samurai, right? So the historians like to work on that one.

DA: That’s really interesting. But also, let’s look at some countries that have had conflicts. You take Indochina, for instance. I spent my first years of my foreign correspondence in the 70s. And there was a huge and horrible conflict that consumed all three of the countries. What has happened in the years since then, in terms of gun ownership and so on? Has it dropped off? When the conflict actually ends, do we see gun ownership disappear, or do they just simply go back to the shelf in some fashion but they’re always there?

AK: Time has a big effect, a really big effect. Guns are not fragile, but in regions like Southeast Asia, if you don’t take care of them, they will deteriorate. A lot of these guns got buried, and you hear all kinds of stories about people digging Kalashnikovs out of the earth. And there’s probably some truth in that, and it’s easy to test it in your own backyard, I guess. But over time, you do see greater scarcity. Where I see this most is my work on India. In the Indian Red Belt, and the separatist groups in the Northeast, getting weapons is a difficulty. A major source of supply is Myanmar. Weapons are coming through Myanmar, where ethnic insurgencies are getting them from Thailand. Many seem to originate in countries like Cambodia, where they are trafficked through Thailand to Myanmar and end up in India. But the numbers are small.

DA: That raises the next question about trafficking—where is the origin of these guns? Where are they being manufactured and originally sold, and then getting into the international marketplace?

MS: It really depends on the region. We did a study on illicit weapons in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2000s, and we analyzed the popular assumption that the militants were well armed with sophisticated, recent-generation weaponry. But that wasn’t the case. What we saw in analyzing seized caches was that a lot of the weapons were models that have been around for generations. That doesn’t mean that the weapons themselves had been around for generations. Some of them had. But there wasn’t a significant change in the types and models of weapons that had been in those countries for years. That could be explained for by a number of reasons. Part of it, though, is that illicit weapons are often drawn from local stocks. So what we saw in Iraq, for example, in the late 2000s was that the models of illicit weapons were very similar to the weapons in Iraqi depots in 2003 when they were looted, when lots of weapons flowed into the area. There was evidence of more recent transfers from Iran, but recent Iranian weapons comprised a small percentage of illicit arms caches. So not all of the weapons acquired by armed groups came from Iraqi depots, but the vast majority of the weapons we analyzed were the same model, suggesting that a lot of them had been in the country for a while.

DA: I can understand that, so let’s take it one step further. Huge quantities of ammunition are being expended. Where are those stockpiles being reinforced from or restocked from?

AK: : It is hard to be certain, but some rebel insurgencies like the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia]— seem to have a lot of guns, but they don’t seem to have much ammo. Indian insurgents have an extraordinary ammunition shortage. It’s a big factor limiting operations for them.

MS: I need to preface all of this discussion about illicit arms trafficking by saying there is a lack of data, so more data would really strengthen our ability to analyze this phenomenon. But field researchers in North Africa for example, have collected important information from shell casings in areas of conflict, in areas where there’s a lot of illicit weaponry, and they see diversion from either regional arms manufacturers or from government stocks. Sometimes, the cartridge casings that they find with recent manufacture dates they can trace back to local government sources, for example, or regional manufacturers such as Sudan that are known for either arming armed groups or for very leaky stockpiles.

DA: They’re manufacturing them there—is that a fair understanding? Or they’re simply taking them from, I don’t know, Hartford, Connecticut—Smith & Wesson.

MS: No, it wouldn’t be Connecticut. It’d be China. So in Sudan, they have a local manufacturing capacity, but they have also imported a lot of weapons from other countries.

DA: So, in other words, controlling supplies of ammunition really wouldn’t have a lot of impact because it can be produced fairly easily locally in many cases.

MS: There is improvised production of weapons and to a lesser extent ammunition. But I wouldn’t say that better control over ammunition wouldn’t have an impact. If you tighten up stockpile security at depots, military depots, in some of these countries, and then put pressure on governments to better control and to stop arming their proxies, armed groups will have difficulty getting ammunition. Improvised production of high-quality ammunition in the quantities needed by prolific criminal groups and armed groups is not easy.

DA: Do you regulate arms brokers and traders, or do you try to control and shut them down? Or do you try to begin at the manufacturing level? Where do you begin to try to shut down and control this trend?

MS: There is no single center of gravity in this struggle. You see diversion at all levels, and what policy makers need to do is to adopt a very holistic approach to this problem. You have to have regulations on brokers. You have require that they register. You have to have case-by-case licensing so that you give your export control officials the opportunity to review export requests to make sure there aren’t any signs of untoward activity. Licensing officers need to have a chance to review the parties to the transfer. You need to control the arms trade at all points of the transfer chain, but then you also need to go into countries with large surpluses and help them to right-size their arsenals, so there aren’t officials making a little money on the side by allowing surplus weapons and ammunition to slip out the back door. You also need to improve stockpile security practices and ensure that manufacturers have tight controls over their processes. You need to control transport. You need to make sure that the entities that are transporting weapons either inter-continentally or locally are properly vetted, and that the shipments themselves are monitored. You need to make sure that the recipients at the port of entry and at the destination are signing for the arms shipments, that exporters are confirming receipt by the proper end-user. And then you do post-shipment and use monitoring. If you’re an exporter, you go in two months, two years, five years, ten years and make sure that the weapons are where they’re supposed to be and that they’re being used properly.

AK: Matt’s absolutely right. The problem is global, but has a lot of local dimensions obviously, and solutions have to be sensitive to those local conditions. A good example of that is trafficking between the United States and Mexico, which has been studied extensively. We have estimates. We also have the tracing requests from the Mexican government to the ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives] in the United States, and we have very good numbers on that. And so we know a lot about where in the United States most of that trafficking is coming from, but solving the problem requires a public discussion which is hard to make happen, because it requirers a tradeoff between domestic liberties and international problem solving.

DA: Now, Matt, you say you go in and check them. Should there be an international patrol of how countries are in fact effectively controlling their arsenals and making sure they don’t get into the wrong hands and so on?

MS: I don’t think that is feasible politically. I think the issue is way too sensitive for there to ever be consent to international monitoring of conventional weapon stocks. I don’t think that’s going to happen. And I don’t know if it’s desirable.

DA: What about having a unit like Interpol police it from getting into illicit hands or into back channels?

MS: Interpol is a very important agency, but that’s not the agency’s role. What is needed is a mentality among exporters that they’re going to be very responsible about whom they export to, and they’re going to monitor their exports indefinitely. Also, you need to build capacity within the recipient state to take care of their weapons. Militaries and law enforcement agencies don’t benefit from diversion most of the time. Most of the time it’s a real liability, because their weapons are getting into the hands of local criminals and other bad actors. So, if approached in the right way and if adequately resourced, the international community could make huge strides in reducing diversion by ensuring that local and national governments have the capacity to keep track of their weapons and minimize diversion. That, combined with a greater commitment by exporters to properly vet potential recipients and to conduct regular end-use monitoring, would help a lot.

DA: Would it be useful for countries like the United States or EU members to establish some sort of fund or aid program to help countries in other parts of the world more effectively police this trafficking, their stockpiles, and so on?

MS: It’s already been done.

DA: In what sense? There are programs like that?

MS: Yes. So the United States government, for example, funds efforts to strengthen stockpile security, border controls, law enforcement capacity, and tracing. There are several programs that provide this assistance. I doubt anybody would argue that they’re not under-resourced. I’m sure that more resources would help to expand the reach of what are often very good programs. But the programs are there, and the U.S. and other governments have many years of experience implementing them.

DA: They’re just not working very well.

MS: Well, no, I think that depends on your metric, and what programs you’re looking at. The United States, for example, has destroyed more than 30,000 surplus MANPADs—man-portable air-defense systems. Those are weapons that are never going to end up in the hands of bad actors, for example.

AK: A problem evaluating some of these programs led by offices like WRA [Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement] at the State Department, is much of the goal is essentially preventive or deterrent, so proving effectiveness is not always easy. But you can look around the world and see where the programs have done a lot, where you don’t have huge diversion problems and conflicts have been suppressed or contained at lower levels of violence. And I don’t want to say there’s a scientific correlation, but it does seem to be making a difference.



This article has been condensed and edited for clarity.

[Photo courtesy of Lance Cpl. Will Lathrop]

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