Small Arms Control: Issues and Controversies

Small Arms Control: Issues and Controversies


The use and availability of small arms for purposes of committing crimes and atrocities is a huge threat to nation building not just in developing countries but developed countries throughout the globe. Currently, there are small arms totaling over 500,000 in circulation globally and they contribute to 300,000 civilian deaths every year (Grillot 529). Of the half-a million deaths that arise from modern conflict every year, close to 80% are civilian and more than 90% of the civilian deaths are the result of use of small arms. The small arms black market industry generates more than US$ 5 billion every year (DeSilva-Ranasinghe 45). More than 1,000 companies are indirectly or directly involved in sale and production of small arm across the globe with 80% of these guns ending up in the custody of civilians illegally or legally. Control of small arms proliferation has also proven to be a major challenge to other organizations and governments involved in international matters as a result of several controversies and issues that surround the task. The main problem lies in lack of consensus among international coalition on the manner in which small arms should be controlled leading to competition of strategies and ideas.

Small arms

Small arms is inclusive of grenades, mortars, pistols, sub-machine guns and handguns. They are a continuous threat since they are obtained easily, they are cheap, their maintenance is cheaper, long lasting and they can be concealed easily during transportation (Grillot and Apostolova 282). As such, small arms trafficking, terrorism and violent crime are widespread domestic and international problems (Grillot 530). The ease of getting small arms creates and sustains a culture of violence. Widespread use and acquisition of small arms in countries that undergo political transitions undermines prospects for post-conflict nation building as well as economic growth. On top of this, availability of small arms makes it difficult for peace and order to be restored following major conflict by provision of alternative ways of acquiring political influence and resources. Such factors render proliferation of small arms as a threat to international stability as well as security.

Control of small arm has also increasingly become difficult despite great attempts to address the issue at international level for varying reasons. First, small arms are needed to serve various legal purposes that are critical to national development and security, including national defense, recreation and policing (Grillot 537). As such, a complete ban of production of small arms and distribution is not possible. Second, there is an overwhelming number of small arms available (more than half a billion). Third. The industry of small arms manufacturing has tremendously grown, with over 1,000 companies legally distributing and producing small accessories and arms throughout the globe currently. Since such companies are in existing in more than 100 countries, it is difficult to control legal trade in small arms as a result of the different regulatory frameworks applied in these countries. What is more, the ease of transporting and concealing small arms as a result of their small size has made it difficult for their proliferation to be controlled.

International Small Arms Control Issues

Controversies and debates surround the control of small arms due to the polarized status of anti-gun control and pro-gun control camps. The concern of small arms control attracted international attention shortly after the Cold War came to an end when activists, policymakers and researchers raised concerns regarding proliferation of small arms and threatened international and national security unless some urgent measures were taken to address the issue (Bromley, Cooper and Holtom 1035). The UN responded by publishing the Supplement to an Agenda for Peace (1995) urging intensification of efforts to control small arms to reduce the number of deaths committed through use of small arms. Shortly afterwards, numerous states in North America and Europe such as Norway, Canada and Belgium started advocating for small arms and they held numerous conferences with the aim of discussing strategies to regulate distribution of small arms, civilian possession and small arms destruction and recall (Grillot 536). In 1999, a couple of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from varying countries came together and they formed International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) whose mission was campaigning for strong international norms to control the trade of small arms (Marsh 406). Hundreds of NGOs from over 100 countries have joined IANSA so far. The pro-gun camp is comprised mostly of the World Forum on Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA), which started initially as the US National Rifle Association (NRA) in 1996. WFSA is a coalition of several producers of guns and pro-gun organizations which are recognized globally as a pro-gun movement.

Presence of both pro-gun and anti-gun camps is not the only aspect that contributes to slow progress towards achievement of a lasting solution to control of small guns problem. The major problem lies in existence of numerous conflicting norms with anti-gun camp. Despite global support for control of sale, production and use of small arms, the subsequent development of international norms for control of small arms has achieved little progress in terms of implementation of the norms. Majority of the states are reliant on voluntary action which has already failed in reduction of small arms proliferation (Grillot and Apostolova 284). The US, in 2001 created the Program of Action which called for comprehensive framework for purposes of addressing the issue of small arms and which members of states agreed to implement. However, not more than half of the member states had implemented Program Action close to a decade later (Grillot 539). The UN, again in 2008 met once more to evaluate Program Action as well as discuss the way forward. The issue of slow implementation, once more topped the agenda ad member states present agreed to increase control efforts of small guns including stopping illicit trafficking, destruction of surplus arms and management of weapon supply among other issues.

The conflict and competition between the control norms of new arms and existing norms is the main issue that continues to hinder progress towards ending the problem of small arms. UN member state have continued to express the need to strengthen the control of small arms through development of comprehensive regulatory frameworks (Grillot and Apostolova 284). These new norms however, are expected to operate in an environment already flooded with international and state coalitions which present state action challenges. To begin with, the UN Charter recognizes self-defense, sovereignty and self-determination as the most important in protection of states, individuals and the global against external threats, tyranny as well as other destabilizing forces (Grillot 539). The UN member states have also repeatedly affirmed importance of these norms in small arms control.

Other areas that raise potential conflict within existing norms include different views concerned with the focus of small arms control. For instance, IANSA defines focus in terms of destruction, death, fear and prevention of violence caused by these small arms (Grillot 540). However, IANSA lacks clear strategy to attain its goal because of its vague understanding of dynamic small arms proliferation. The limited know-how of weapon supply chains, transfers and transactions as a result of limited information sharing among distributors, producers and other actors makes it difficult for IANSA to hold any specific actor accountable (Garcia 159). Additionally, the relationship between violent conflict and arms proliferation can escalate violence though it cannot cause it. WFSA and other movements that are pro-gun also question the underlying role of availability of small arms in violent conflict. As a matter of fact, their slogan, “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is an indication of their belief that availability of guns is not the major cause of violence (Wilson 156).

Another area that raises competition between existing and new small arm control norms is individual freedom and the equal rights to secure humane treatment and a secure environment. The camp that is pro-gun insists individuals have a right to legally own guns (Grillot 541). The anti-control arguments that are based on individual rights are also strong considering the main shift in focus of security policy from state protection to individual protection during the start of post-Cold War era (Bromley, Cooper & Holton 1036). The new focus has been and still is on human security though the concept lacks any clear implementation and definition strategy. Nevertheless, most of the conventions created incorporate aspect of human security of small arms control.

Examples include the 1997 Ottawa Treaty and the 2008 Oslo convention. Expansion of arms control framework on grounds of humanitarian explain ongoing attempts at strengthening international arms production and export regulation, which is a major controversy area, especially from those states that export and manufacture arms like China, Russia, the US and Pakistan (Bromley, Cooper and Holton 1037).

Particularly, the NRA is opposed to control of small firearms since it believes that control of arms is an attempt at stripping individuals of the right to own arms as well as protect themselves (Gischiler 9). As such, the pro-gun movement will continue to oppose any attempts to restrict possession of guns by civilians and instead, campaign for protection of patriotic citizen rights to own small arms. Some of the groups that are pro-gun use relevant state norms in opposing international attempts to control small arms ownership. For instance, the NRA argues civilians are entitled to a right to possess small arms in accordance to the US constitution (Blocher 108). Though individual pro-gun groups are fewer and smaller than the anti-gun groups and combined influence in efforts of gun control internationally and locally is formidable. For instance, using individual’s rights to own guns as the tool for campaign, the pro-gun group led by NRA in 2005 defeated the Brazilian small arms control referendum (Grillot 541). 2 months before the referendum, opinion polls indicated majority of Brazilians would have voted for the referendum, however, this changed when NRA and the supporters managed to divert attention from violence arising from use of firearms to negative implications of control on the individual freedom of civilians.

Besides competition between the existing and emerging small norms for control of small arms, conflicting interests also existed among pro-gun control groups, state alliances and specific states. Major world powers like the US, China and Russia are main players in this issue since they supply the largest percentage of small arms (Bromley, Cooper and Holton 1037) control of small arms as such would not prove effective unless these great power states complied actively with international arms control norms which include strict regulation of arms transfer and manufacture. Unfortunately, getting such compliance would affect individual states due to the varying degree of state interests in the business of arms. The US, Russia and China are the largest producers of small arms in the world which means, they have great stakes to lose by complying with strict control of arms with other smaller producers.

Apart from losing revenue from arms sale and manufacture, large producers like the US would as well face other economic consequences of industry collapse like jobs loss and security vulnerabilities. For instance, though the US supports international efforts in combating proliferation of small arms, it has also been reluctant to implement strict control on its own legal arms sale and production especially as a result of increased terrorism threat following the attacks of 2011 (Grillot 543). Additionally, the US is opposed to attempts at regulation of legal arms transfer regardless of actors involved in exchange which includes civilians since the constitution of the US strongly endorses the right of individuals to possess firearms (Garcia 157). It is this sad state that explains the reason why the UN Program of Action has not produced any significant progress in combating the menace of small arms. For instance the US, voted against UN proposition to develop an Arms Trade Treaty that was comprehensive while China and Russia declined to vote. Succeeding meetings held to discuss Arms Trade Treaty have also encountered difficulties which include lack of agreement on whether to move forward with development and the scope of the treaty.

Another issue that affects control of small arms is lack of clarity in the already emerging and extant norms. Both the Proposed Arms Trade Treaty and the UN Program of Action do not have policies that are articulated clearly. Currently, the Arms Trade Treaty faces great opposition especially from major small arms producers for being overly ambitious and potentially intrusive to national interests. Policy experts in proliferation of arms like Australian based Stephanie Koorey argues that none of the UN initiatives will trigger change in the arms problem since the initiatives are based on the complete understanding of the actual problem (DeSilva-Ranasinghe 48). Koorey observes arms destruction, disbarment and intense campaign solely focus on reduction of small arms supply fails to address the entire problem. Koorey suggests arms control policy is supposed to address the issue of demand for guns, which calls for understanding of the user dynamics. With regard to demand, some of the users desire to keep the weapons especially after bloody political transitions for self-defense in the event the government does not protect them. Other users as well want small arm for reasons that are psychological like pride of being veteran or freedom fighter in the military.

Ethical dilemmas as well contribute to slow progress towards arriving at a consensus on control of small arms at international level. The major dilemmas arising from the US proposal prohibiting supply of arms to non-state actors as well as other potential arms bearers is a question that defines the legit firearms user (Garcia 150). Legit users are defined different by different nations depending on their state norms. As such, any attempt to define legitimacy as related to use of arms would appear as an attempt at crossing sovereignty boundaries. Therefore, the attempt to specify non-state actors cannot qualify as legitimate arms receivers would be controversial and create new conflicts and tensions.

Additionally, transfer of arms on its own poses some ethical problems taking into consideration the dangerous effects it could have on the society (Wilson 186). For instance, transfer of arms t rebels in Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone resulted to killing of thousands of civilians (Garcia 154). Governments cannot leave such weapons in the hands of non-state actors regardless of whether they are legit or illegitimate users. Others argue use of small arms by non-state actors’ leads to increased demand of these arms promoting illegal arms trafficking. Non-state actors also take control where the government proves to be weak and this endangers the lives of civilians. What is more, non-state actors do not have any clear identity, definite operation scope and organization structure which makes accountability concept difficult to apply to them (Garcia 159). Though the Geneva Convention recognizes non-state actors involved in domestic conflict, they should be held accountable, it is lack of clear leadership hierarchy in most non-state groups that renders it hard for anyone to be held accountable. Majority of these actors are ignorant of obligations to international arms and security arms control while those not aware of the norms never comply.


Proliferation of small arms remains a major threat to international security regardless of increased international effort aimed at combating the problem especially in the last 2 decades. While majority of coalitions like UN and IANSA have joined efforts in curbing spread of small arms and reduction of civilian killings carried out with such weapons, many odds are against these efforts. The international instruments already established governing individual freedom, sovereignty, self-defense and other aspects of international law that are important have slowed the development of norms that governs production of small arms and transfer since the existing norms conflict with the emerging norms on different fronts. Further complicating this issue is increased emphasis of need to incorporate human security as well as individual freedoms in development of small arms control opposed to earlier focus which was on state interests. The added emphasis on motives humanitarian of controlling arms has also strengthened the pro-gun camp since its major argument is the development of small arms control norms, a systematic attempt that strips civilians of the right to use and own arms for self-defense. Despite such hindrances, the issue of small arms is now viewed as a global threat even within pro-gun camp. States and NGOs now play a crucial role in debate and increased participation is an indication of positive development. However, there are many controversies and conflicts that are unresolved of interests and ideas that can prolong the debate. Influential states like the US and other major firearms producers hold the key to bringing to an end the debate because to their support (or lack of) has shaped international norms future throughout history.

Works Cited

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DeSilva-Ranasinghe, Sergei. “The Politics of Small Arms Proliferation.” Policy 28.4 (2012): 45-48. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

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Gischler, Katrin. Why Has Gun Control Become Such a Contentious Issue in American Politics?München: GRIN Verlag GmbH, 2007. Internet resource.

Grillot, Suzette R. “Global Gun Control: Examining The Consequences Of Competing International Norms.” Global Governance 17(2011): 529-555.

Grillot, Suzette R., and Dessie Apostolova. “Light Weapons, Long Reach: Bulgaria’s Role in the Global Spread and Control of Small Arms.” Journal of Southern Europe & the Balkans 5.3(2003): 279-297.

Marsh, Nicholas. “Taming the Tools of Violence.” Journal of Public Health Policy 28.4 (2007): 401-409. Academic Search Premier. Web. 19 Nov. 2013.

Wilson, Harry L. Guns, Gun Control, and Elections: The Politics and Policy of Firearms. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2006. Internet resource.

Wilson, John K. How the Left Can Win Arguments for Pragmatic Progressives: A Tactical Manual for Pragmatic Progressives. New York: New York Univ. Press, 2001. Print.