Connect the Dots: U.S. Gun Laws and the International Arms Trade

Rachel Stohl

POV: What kinds of weapons fall under the "small arms" and "light weapons" (SA/LW) category? And is this definition contested, or is there international agreement?

Rachel Stohl

Rachel Stohl: Small arms and light weapons are a subset of what we call conventional weapons. There isn't one official definition for SA/LW, but for the most part people refer to the United Nations definition.

Generally speaking, small arms are guns like revolvers and pistols. Light weapons are weapons like heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-aircraft missiles. For practical purposes, I usually say that SA/LW are weapons you can carry by yourself or with another person, or that you can mount to a vehicle or load on a pack animal. They are one- to two-person weapons.

In 1997, a UN panel on small arms developed a working definition which is the most widely-accepted standard today:
"Simply put, a small arm is one that can be fired, maintained and transported by one person; a light weapon is used by a small crew and transported on a light vehicle or pack animal. This covers such ubiquitous weapons as pistols, assault rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers, mortars of less than 100-mm-caliber and shoulder-fired anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles."
Source: United Nations

The definition is sometimes contested for political reasons. Some countries don't want to categorize SA/LW because to do so might limit their trade. With some weapons, the politics have to do with the notion of legitimate civilian possession. But for the most part, in international agreements, and in writing on the topic, we use the UN definition. [See sidebar for details.]

POV: How many of these weapons are available for legal purchase by civilians in the US?

Stohl: This is a hard question to answer because almost none of these weapons are absolutely prohibited from civilian purchase. The jurisdiction for weapons purchasing is left to states, in many cases, and state law can supersede federal law. You can also get a special dispensation to own almost any kind of SA/LW, by petitioning agencies such as the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). [Learn more about state and federal gun laws in our Resources section.]

POV: The U.S. is the largest arms exporter in the world. When it comes to the small arms trade specifically, does this statistic hold? Do most small arms in circulation originate and/or trade through the US?

Stohl: Not necessarily. We do know that there is a legal trade in small arms worth about $4 billion, and an illicit trade worth $1 billion, but we don't always know exact values for countries by proportion. The largest exporters are the US, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Brazil and China. And most of the big sales are state to state transfers, or commercial companies selling arms to states.

The reason it's difficult to measure is that there isn't a single transparency mechanism for reporting this kind of data. If you look at the conventional weapons category as a whole, there are many data sources for the levels of trade. In the case of SA/LW -- unlike, say, a tank -- individuals, police forces and military forces all have legitimate uses and needs for these weapons. That makes it very difficult to put controls on the trade, and transparency is a method of control. There are also many actors involved -- production of SA/LW happens in over 90 countries, and over 1,200 companies are involved in some aspect of the trade, whether that's production or repair. The bottom line is that there are many of these weapons available very easily from a lot of different sources.

Small arms and light weapons are considered to be a subset of the larger category of conventional weapons. Conventional weapons are distinguished from nuclear, chemical and biological weapons (NBC), also known as weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

POV: Is the story that we see in The Brooklyn Connection typical of how the small arms trade functions globally? For example, we watch Florin Krasniqi purchase a .50-caliber rifle, which remains in his possession until he gives it to Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) compatriots abroad. How common is it for light weapons to remain with one single owner from the time when they are initially purchased until they are put into action on the ground? In other words, how much of the small arms trade is trafficked through arms brokers, who buy and resell weapons? How much involves civilians?

Stohl: This really depends on the purpose of the arms, the destination and the quantity. What you described above, straw purchasing, is a very common method of getting guns into Mexico or Canada from the U.S. If you are talking about the conflict in Chiapas, or in Central America, this is a common scenario.

That is not the case if you are talking about, for example, moving weapons from France or Belgium to Sierra Leone. The conflict in Sierra Leone was more protracted than the Kosovo conflict. There were more actors involved, and a lack of recognized government. In such conflicts, the arms transfer might be a large shipload of weapons trafficked through a major arms broker, rather than small piecemeal transfers, though that of course can still happen.

POV: In The Brooklyn Connection we see how legal gun purchases in the U.S. have ended up fueling violent conflict in Kosovo. Today most of the world's armed conflicts are similar to the warfare in Kosovo -- they are so-called "internal" wars, sustained by these kinds of light weapons. Where else worldwide have guns purchased legally in the U.S. found their way to warfare?

Stohl: There are approximately 639 million SA/LW in circulation worldwide right now. It's hard to track the life-cycle of these weapons, especially during times of war. You can use serial numbers, but those can be removed, and not all countries use them to mark weapons.

But certainly wars in Central America, South America, and Mexico have been fought with U.S. weapons. Brazil has had problems with street crimes being committed with guns of U.S. origin. I believe Human Rights Watch found evidence of U.S. guns in Liberia. Southern Asia, especially the Philippines, still has a lot of U.S. weapons, and there were also weapons left from the Vietnam War which remain in the region. Stinger missiles that the U.S. supplied to the mujaheeden in Afghanistan in the 1980s were used against us in the war with the Taliban. [See interview with Matt Schroeder for more details about the Stinger trades.] And I believe that when they've done weapons collection in Iraq they have found U.S. guns.

POV: What basic recommendations would you make for how the U.S. could help limit the proliferation of small arms globally?

Stohl: The U.S. should support the creation of legally binding international treaties on arms brokering, marking and tracing, and arms export criteria. We should strengthen end-use monitoring and pre-license checks through the Blue Lantern and Golden Sentry end-use monitoring programs. We should demonstrate leadership on small arms through bilateral relationships and in regional and multilateral fora, such as the Organization of American States, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the United Nations by pushing for higher international standards, to ensure the adoption of effective regulations governing arms exports and imports and controls over arms brokers. And we should expand assistance programs to states seeking more effective implementation and enforcement of arms export laws, regulations, and procedures, including providing increased law enforcement and export control training.

Rachel Stohl is a Senior Analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington, DC. Her areas of expertise include the international arms trade, conventional weapons, small arms and light weapons, landmines, child soldiers and the United Nations. Prior to joining CDI, Ms. Stohl was a Herbert Scoville Peace Fellow at the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), and she previously worked at the United Nations Center for Disarmament Affairs and at the Program for Arms Control, Disarmament, and Conversion. She has a MA in International Policy Studies from the Monterey Institute of International Studies.