Firearms do not in themselves cause violence. But regardless of the context – crime, conflict, domestic assault, suicide – they increase its severity, the number of victims and the potential for children to become killers. Public health experience has shown that the best prevention strategies involve breaking the chain of the causes of violence or injury at the point where the link in the chain is weakest. The firearm, is therefore, an important focal point.
The UN estimates that the 500 million-plus small arms in circulation have fuelled 46 of the world's 49 largest conflicts since 1990, mostly in the developing world. According to a report by the US State Department, "AK-47s sell for as little as $6 in some African countries... it is easier and cheaper to buy an AK-47 than to attend a movie or provide a decent meal." Amnesty International estimates that more than 1,300 people each day are killed by small arms and light weapons, in conflicts from Sierra Leone and the Congo to Colombia and Indonesia. Of those killed, an estimated 90% are civilians, 80% of them women and children.
The extent of the damage caused by the proliferation and unlawful use of light weapons – an estimated 90 percent of fatalities in conflicts since 1990 have been among non-combatants – has made this issue a major concern for NGOs working on development, humanitarian relief, human rights, and peace and security.
The five permanent members of the UN Security Council are responsible for 85% of the world trade in small arms. The USA is the leading exporter of small arms and light weapons and has more than half the world's small arms companies. The USA reportedly sold light weapons to 124 countries in 1998; in five of those, the weapons were used to fire on US or UN soldiers. After the USA, Germany is the single largest small arms exporter; Austria, Britain Sweden, Belgium, Italy, the UK and Canada are all in the top twenty.
Many governments see restrictions on the legal trade-whether government-to-government, business-to-government, or private civilian sales-as compromising their ability to make foreign policy, as well as possibly costing jobs. For the United States, sales and direct transfers of light weapons to allies are a major foreign policy tool, and a significant source of foreign exchange. Additionally, well connected arms manufacturers in the United States, Russia, France, and Britain, to mention only a few, are strongly resistant to the strengthening of controls in an increasingly competitive global market. Further complicating matters for backers of the light weapons campaign are politically powerful groups like the National Rifle Association of America, which has opposed controls on weapons possession both in the United States and abroad.
At the first UN conference on small arms trafficking (2001), the USA announced its opposition to a UN draft accord that would limit the international sale of small arms. It did not support the majority of the proposals under consideration, including a ban on private ownership of military weapons like assault rifles, portable anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns, and rocket launchers.
In the aftermath of the school shootings in Littleton, Colorado, the US acted swiftly to propose new laws aimed at restricting the sales of guns to juveniles and to close loopholes in existing laws. In May 1999, the Senate passed a bill to ban the importation of high capacity ammunition magazines and require background checks for guns sold at gun shows.
While the world cannot ban small arms (as they are not inherently indiscriminate weapons like landmines), it may be possible to greatly attenuate the suffering and casualties caused by their indiscriminate and unlawful use. A first step in this direction is the proposed convention on the "Prevention of the Indiscriminate and Unlawful Use of Light Weapons," introduced at a recent workshop sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
The problem of light weapons proliferation is in some ways even more intractable than that of land mines. Two basic facts make a simple "ban light weapons" campaign impossible: first, the fact that civilian ownership of small arms-handguns, rifles, shotguns, and so on-is legal in countries throughout the world means that the need for controls on these weapons is not universally accepted; second, few would argue that light weapons do not have legitimate uses under some circumstances- for example, when carried by forces engaged in peacekeeping operations.