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Connect the Dots: US Gun Laws and the International Arms Trade

Small arms are the weapons of choice in most global conflicts and trading them worldwide is a $5 billion business. Learn more about how these arms are trafficked, and what role, if any, U.S. laws play in their proliferation.

POV: What kinds of laws are on the books controlling the export of small arms from the US? Is it possible to estimate how often these laws are strictly enforced? How, and to what degree, does the U.S. monitor the "end-use" of these weapons — how they are sold, who the recipients are, how they are used?

Matt Schroeder Matt Schroeder: U.S. controls on firearms exports are some of the best in the world. All commercial exports require a license from the State Department, and only exporters that are registered with the State Department are eligible to apply for a license. This is true regardless of the quantity or type of firearms requested (with a few exceptions). Each license request is individually reviewed by a trained State Department licensing officer. The licensing officer checks the names that appear on the application against government watch lists of individuals and companies that are prohibited from selling and receiving U.S. arms exports, and also scrutinizes the accompanying documentation for forgeries or signs of fraud. When applicable, they seek input from other bureaus within and outside of the State Department. Through these pre-license checks, the State Department has prevented dozens of potentially harmful firearms transfers.

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License requests that make it through the review process are approved for export only if the applicant submits a certificate from the foreign government authorizing the import. In many cases, the importer must also sign documents obligating them to obtain U.S. government approval before retransferring the imported firearms.

Government oversight of small arms does not end when the weapons leave U.S. shores. Both the State and the Defense Departments operate end-use monitoring programs that conduct post-shipment verification checks of exported weapons. In 2004, the State Department conducted 221 post-shipment checks.*

POV: Do these laws apply to civilians purchasing weapons here who intend to export but not resell?

Schroeder: Nearly all firearms exports require a license from the State Department (except shotguns, which are licensed by the Commerce Department). The only exceptions are:

  • firearms components (except barrels, cylinders, frames, and complete breech mechanisms) valued at less than $100;
  • Firearms manufactured before 1898;
  • Temporary export of up to 3 non-automatic firearms but only if they are for the exclusive use of an American citizen and are not retransferred to other parties;
  • Non-automatic firearms for the personal use of members of the U.S. armed forces and government personnel. Retransfer of these firearms is not permitted, and these individuals are not allowed to take with them more than 1000 rounds of ammunition.**

POV: Is it possible to estimate how much of the small arms trade from or through the U.S. is monitored and regulated, and how much flies under the radar, legally and illegally? For example, are there hundreds of civilians like Florin Krasniqi living in the U.S. and supplying weapons to conflicts abroad using legal means? What about using illegal means?

Schroeder: Gauging the legal trade in U.S. small arms is relatively easy. Reports and databases compiled by the State Department, Defense Department and Census bureau provide a fairly complete picture of legal firearms exports. In contrast, the illicit trade in U.S. small arms is extremely opaque. Most of the publicly available information about such transfers is anecdotal, consisting primarily of government and media reports on intercepted shipments. While these reports are often quite detailed, they only provide information on trafficking attempts that are detected by law enforcement officials.

Most of the annual government reports on arms exports are available on the FAS website.

POV: In July 2001, the UN held a conference on the illicit trade of small arms. At the conference, John Bolton — Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and now the Bush administration nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the UN — stated the U.S. position on a proposed UN accord.

Among other concerns, he mentioned that limiting trade of SA/LW solely to governments would "preclude assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government." Many people agree that limiting the trade of weapons to prevent global violence is a good goal, but does Under-Secretary Bolton have a point? What about "freedom fighters"?

Schroeder: Only the most ardent pacifist would argue that there is never cause to take up arms against an oppressive regime, and that the international community does not have a moral right to assist populations resisting such regimes. But arming non-state actors is fraught with danger and should be the option of last resort.

Generally speaking, rebel groups do not have the capacity to prevent their members from transferring weapons to unauthorized end-users. As a result, small arms and light weapons provided to rebel groups in the past have ended up in the hands of hostile governments and terrorists. The Stinger shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles exported to the Afghan rebels in the 1980s is a classic example. The missiles were remarkably effective against the dreaded Soviet Hind gunships, which decimated the poorly equipped but courageous Afghan rebels. After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, however, the missiles became a proliferation nightmare. Hundreds of the estimated 2000 missiles sent to the rebels disappeared despite efforts by the CIA to buy them back. The Iranians acquired several of them. Others reportedly ended up in the arsenals of the Taliban, the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, Chechen Rebels and al Qaeda. *** Mercifully, the missing Stingers have not been used against U.S. airliners, but the threat that such weapons pose to air travelers is very real.

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

Schroeder: In many ways, the United States already leads the pack in efforts to curb illicit arms transfers. U.S. controls on brokers, end-use monitoring programs, and retransfer restrictions are some of the best in the world. Through foreign aid programs, the U.S. also helps other governments to strengthen their export controls, monitor their borders and secure or destroy government small arms stockpiles.***

That said, the U.S. can do more. Below are two important steps that policymakers should take immediately:

1) Ratify the Organization of American States (OAS) Firearms Convention. The Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives, and Other Related Materials, also known as the OAS Firearms Convention, is a practical, no-nonsense tool for improving arms export controls, increasing cooperation and information-sharing among member states, and helping investigators dismantle arms trafficking networks. Despite early U.S. support for the Convention, the United States is now one of a handful of countries that has not ratified it. U.S. ratification would boost the credibility of the Convention and, in turn, the Convention's ability to shape the policies of other governments. Visit the FAS website for more information on the OAS Firearms Convention.

2) Fully fund the State Department's Small Arms/Light Weapons (SA/LW) Destruction Program. The SA/LW destruction program provides technical and financial assistance to governments that need help securing their small arms stockpiles or destroying surplus weaponry. Since 2001, the program has paid for the destruction of over 700,000 surplus small arms, including 10,700 deadly shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. This accomplishment is even more remarkable considering how little funding the program receives. Last year, Congress appropriated just $7 million for the program — $2 million less than the amount requested by the President in his annual foreign aid budget.

Congress is likely to do the same thing this year. Despite the program's obvious benefits, the House voted to appropriate only $7 million for the program for fiscal year 2006. Since the Senate's version of the appropriations bill fully funds the president's $8.75 million request, the final amount will be determined when the House and the Senate convene a conference committee to iron out differences between their bills. In budgetary terms, the $1.75 million difference is insignificant; it will neither make nor break Congressional efforts to balance the budget. Programmatically, however, the difference is critical. The funding requests for destruction programs in the Sudan, Cambodia, the Philippines, Albania, Belarus, and Bulgaria combined is less than $1.75 million. If the House gets its way and the President's budget request is not fully funded, several of these or other country-specific destruction programs will have to be delayed or scaled back.

Visit the State Department's website for more information on the SA/LW destruction program or read "Controlling the Most Dangerous Weapons."

Matt Schroeder is the Manager of the Arms Sales Monitoring Project. Since joining the Federation of American Scientists in February 2002, he has researched and written on U.S. arms export policies, illicit arms trafficking, and terrorism and small arms. Articles he has written have appeared in the Baltimore Sun, San Diego Union-Tribune, Defense News, and the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. He is also the author of Small Arms, Terrorism and the OAS Firearms Convention. He received a master's degree in international security policy from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs.

* For more information, see the State Department's annual end-use monitoring report.

**For more information, see the International Trafficking in Arms Regulations.

*** Thomas Hunter, "The Proliferation of MANPADS," Jane's Intelligence Review, September 2001. See also Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).

****For more information, see "MANPADS Proliferation," FAS Issue Brief #1.





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