Small arms and light weapons - The real weapons of mass destruction

Small arms and light weapons (SALW) are not weapons of mass destruction per definition, as this term is solely used for chemical, biological and nuclear major weapons. Still, in 2006, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan stated that "in terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction’”.

An estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people are killed every year by SALW. This can predominantly be attributed to their wide circulation both in areas of conflict and elsewhere. The number of small arms worldwide is an estimated 850 million. This number, however, is difficult to verify as manufacture and trade with SALW are highly opaque. The terrible 'efficacy' of SALW is the result of some of its characteristics. The are relatively cheap and easily available, easy to transport, smuggle and conceal. They are resistant to dirt and corrosion, hardly need any maintenance and have a long service life; i.e. even after several decades, they may well still be operational.

But people also become indirect victims of armed violence carried out with SALW. Armed conflicts have repercussions on a country's infrastructure: they hinder access to medical services or cause the lack of food, water and lodging. The weaker the infrastructure (even before the conflict began) the higher the number of victims. According to estimates, for each direct death in areas affected by armed violence there are four indirect fatalities, i.e. at least 200,000 per year.

Even if SALW themselves do not cause any violent conflicts, their wide circulation can contribute in various ways to increased armed violence.

  • SALW are the immediate means for perpetrating violence.

  • The use of SALW becomes the more probable the easier they are available and the more they are part of everyday life.

  • SALW contribute to dynamics of insecurity. Individuals or groups more likely resort to violence as a problem-solving strategy when they perceive their 'enemies' to be violent—particularly when these have the corresponding weapons.

  • SALW are much more destructive than 'cold' weapons, such as blunt instruments and blades. A typical example of this are tribal conflicts in South Sudan, with their traditions of cattle rustling and violent competition for pastures. While parties to these conflicts in the past used spears, bow and arrows, the extreme spread of fully automatic assault rifles in the past decades has led to an escalation of such conflicts and contributed to the instability of the young country.

It is not surprising, therefore, that between 60 and 90 per cent of the estimated annual 740,000 fatalities can be traced back to violence perpetrated with SALW. Obviously, SALW only cause damage when they are used by individuals. Conflicts are highly complex, and their origin and escalation always the result of various factors, with SALW being only one of these. Critics of SALW control often give Switzerland as an example for a country that, despite an extremely high availability of SALW, only has a very small rate of weapons misuse.

The debate on SALW control is often characterized by ideologies and cultural factors. Various societies value weapons and the carrying of arms differently, and this value evidently has an effect on international discussions on the necessity and scope of weapons control. In the United States, the individual's right to own weapons is laid down in the constitution and is a consensus in society. The defence of one's home, for instance, is considered a legitimate reason for the possession of arms. Semi-automatic weapons with larger magazines are easily available in large parts of the United States. In Germany, on the contrary, the population is very critical of arms ownership, as public discussions on the control of SALW show after various shootings in the past. In parts of the Middle East, however, even fully automatic weapons are a normal part of everyday life, for instance when at celebrations or funerals gun salutes are fired.

Such views and practices reflect the national culture and, primarily, have an impact on a country’s legislation on gun ownership but also influence the general debate about international small arms control, where it is mostly about the international trade in weapons of war. The United States, for instance, is mostly critical of or even against international agreements on small arms control, while other regions, such as West Africa, for instance, that are or have been particularly affected by armed violence want strict regulations on the manufacture, the trade and the transfer of firearms.

Sources and further information:

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