Can the guns be silenced?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 March, 2005, 12:00am

Every minute, somewhere in the world, a person dies of a gunshot wound. In cold, hard numbers, that means 1,440 people a day and more than half a million a year. That most of the victims are innocent bystanders who would still be alive if governments had stricter gun laws has long been the rallying cry of lobbyists, aid agencies and human-rights groups. Their case has been given impetus by a series of shootings in the United States in the past fortnight at a school, a church and a courthouse.

Video and newspaper photographs of the crumpled, bloodied bodies of teenagers and worshippers have yet to sway American lawmakers to make it more difficult to buy weapons.

Arguments that the US constitution gives citizens the right to own guns means that there are more than 200 million in the country, or almost one for every adult. Each year, they claim at least 30,000 lives.

Britain's gun laws are far stricter. They were implemented in 1997, a year after 16 children and a teacher were shot dead at a primary school in the Scottish village of Dunblane. Foreign Minister Jack Straw has become a leading voice in the campaign to restrict international small-arms sales.

Earlier this month Mr Straw called on the world's biggest arms exporting nations to agree on a treaty to control the sales of conventional weapons such as guns and grenades. Already under discussion at the United Nations and the crux of campaigns by the British aid group Oxfam and the human-rights organisation Amnesty International, such a pact could potentially save the lives of tens of thousands of people.

'Relatively cheap and simple conventional weapons, whether the guns of bandits and rebels, the bombs of terrorists or the tanks of repressive regimes, account for an enormous amount of avoidable human misery across the world,' Mr Straw said in London.

He pledged to put the issue on the agenda of the June meeting of the foreign ministers of the G8 group of industrialised nations. Leading weapons producers the US, Russia and China would also be pressured to agree to participate in such an accord.

Campaigners welcomed the move as a breakthrough in their struggle. Oxfam conflict campaign manager Simon Gray said: 'Today could be a turning point for millions of people who live in fear of armed violence.'

Predictably, the idea has been met with silence by weapons manufacturers and received no comment from leaders in the US, the world's biggest exporter and importer of small arms and light weapons.

The Geneva-based Small Arms Survey estimates that global legal exports of light weapons last year were worth US$2.4 billion. Experts say illegal shipments of arms could be an extra US$1 billion.

America's powerful National Rifle Association, which has 2.8 million members, last week condemned the recent high-profile shootings in the US, which claimed 10 lives in Minnesota, eight in Wisconsin and four in Georgia. But spokeswoman Kelly Hobbs said such incidents did not affect the organisation's approach to gun ownership.

'We are opposed to the illegal trafficking of firearms,' Ms Hobbs said. 'However, we also oppose any international effort to regulate firearm ownership for law-abiding citizens in the US. We need to ensure the US is not faced with a legally binding document that would commit the country to firearms registration and regulation.'

Researchers agree that the National Rifle Association and other shooting groups need have no fear of such a clampdown.

A small-arms expert at the Centre for Defence Information in Washington, Rachel Stohl, described efforts at the UN as benign and Mr Straw's plan as just a concept - despite the idea being first mooted in 1997 in the Nobel peace laureates' international code of conduct on arms transfers.

She believed such an accord was inadequate in stopping the proliferation of guns.

'There can be no one treaty on small arms because it is a multi-faceted issue,' Ms Stohl explained. 'Jack Straw is looking at the trade in these weapons, but this is only going to deal with the problem on the new-supply side. An added component with small arms is that they last for years.

'There are already many weapons in circulation and something needs to be done about collecting and destroying them. Addressing why individuals or states are interested in acquiring weapons is another issue.'

Restricting the global flow has also been on the UN's agenda for some time. Secretary-General Kofi Annan encapsulated the problem in an address to the General Assembly in September 1999, describing arms proliferation as 'one of the key challenges in preventing conflict in the next century'.

'With more than 500 million light weapons and small arms around the globe, far more people have fallen victim to such arms than any other weapons,' he said. 'Of the 49 conflicts fought during the 1990s, small arms were the weapon of choice in 46 of them.'

The issue was included in the UN's Millennium goals, with member states resolving in their declaration to 'take concerted action to end illicit trafficking in small arms and light weapons, especially by making arms transfers more transparent and supporting regional disarmament measures'. A top-level conference to examine the best means to achieve the aims was held the following year and a programme calling for global, regional and national action was adopted.

A spokesman for the UN's Department of Disarmament Affairs said on Friday much progress had been made, especially on the marking and tracing of weapons. A meeting in June would determine whether a pact on the issue would be politically or legally binding.

'It's a major step forward in trying to control the proliferation of illicit small arms,' he said.

But he admitted tougher action, such as that proposed by Mr Straw, would be more difficult to find consensus on. Whether it would be included on the agenda of the next conference on small arms next year was a matter of how the idea was received by governments.

The lukewarm response so far is most likely because of the value of the small-arms market and the political and economic power of the biggest players.

The Small Arms Survey said the biggest exporters by value last year were the US, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Russia, Brazil and China. The largest importers by value were the US, Saudi Arabia, Cyprus, Japan, South Korea, Germany and Canada.

Countries known to be medium producers of small arms, but about whose exports little was known, included Iran, Pakistan and Singapore.

Legal exports increased by an estimated US$300 million between 2003 and last year. Those, and illegal weapons from thousands of manufacturers around the world, were pouring into the world's conflict zones at increasing rates.

The Small Arms Survey claimed Saudi Arabia and Yemen - frequently cited by terrorism experts as breeding grounds for extremists - were prime destinations.

Small-arms specialist Richard Jones, the editor of the authoritative Jane's Infantry Weapons, said most conflicts were armed from pre-existing stockpiles in smaller countries which had faced problems of their own, such as during the Cold War.

'They have items to move on and that gives them foreign currency, assuming there is a ready market,' he said from his London home.

But he doubted that the trade from these countries, which was usually illegal, could be easily curtailed.

'The biggest negative factor is non-compliance,' Mr Jones said. 'The need is for an international system to collect and collate the data on weapons that are misused and feed that information back to sources such as manufacturers.'

The suggestion would become part of a wider system of tracking, impounding and destroying weapons. But Mr Jones, like other observers, did not see any such method coming into effect yet.

For Mr Straw and others eager to stop the unnecessary deaths caused by guns, whether in domestic violence or insurgencies, the coming months could be more frustrating than hopeful.