Small Arms, Big Problems
FOR decades, arms-control talks centered on nuclear weapons. This is hardly surprising, since a single nuclear bomb can destroy an entire city. Yet, unlike smaller arms, these immensely powerful weapons have not been used in war in over 50 years.
Respected military historian John Keegan writes: “Nuclear weapons have, since 9 August 1945, killed no one. The 50,000,000 who have died in war since that date have, for the most part, been killed by cheap, mass-produced weapons and small-calibre ammunition, costing little more than the transistor radios and dry-cell batteries which have flooded the world in the same period. Because cheap weapons have disrupted life very little in the advanced world, outside the restricted localities where drug-dealing and political terrorism flourish, the populations of the rich states have been slow to recognise the horror that this pollution has brought in its train.”
No one knows precisely how many small arms and light weapons are in circulation, but experts estimate that military-style firearms may number about 500 million. In addition, tens of millions of civilian-type rifles and pistols are owned by private citizens. What is more, new weapons are produced and fed into the market each year.
Weapons of Choice
Why have small arms become the weapons of choice in recent wars? Part of the reason lies in the relationship between conflict and poverty. Most of the wars fought during the 1990’s took place in countries that are poor—too poor to buy sophisticated weapon systems. Small arms and light weapons are a bargain. For example, 50 million dollars, which is approximately the cost of a single modern jet fighter, can equip an army with 200,000 assault rifles.
Sometimes, small arms and light weapons come far cheaper than that. Tens of millions of these weapons are simply given away by militaries that are downsizing, or they are recycled from one conflict to another. In some lands there is such an abundance of assault rifles that they are sold for as little as six dollars or can be traded for a goat, a chicken, or a bag of old clothes.
Yet, apart from low cost and wide availability, there are other reasons why small weapons are so popular. They are lethal. A single rapid-fire assault rifle can fire hundreds of rounds a minute. They are also easy to use and maintain. A child of ten can be taught to strip and reassemble a typical assault rifle. A child can also quickly learn to aim and fire that rifle into a crowd of people.
Another reason guns are popular is that they are rugged and remain operational for years. Rifles such as the AK-47 and the M16, which soldiers carried in the Vietnam War, are still being used in wars of today. Some rifles used in Africa date back to World War I. Further, guns are easily transported and concealed. One packhorse can carry a dozen rifles to a paramilitary group located in a dense jungle or on a remote mountain. A column of horses can carry enough rifles to outfit a small army.
Guns, Drugs, and Diamonds
The global traffic in guns is complex. Huge supplies of guns pass legally from nation to nation. After the Cold War, armies in both the East and the West were reduced, and governments gave or sold excess equipment to friends and allies. According to a writer at the Peace Research Institute in Oslo, Norway, since 1995 the United States alone has given away more than 300,000 rifles, pistols, machine guns, and grenade launchers. It is reasoned that giving weapons away is cheaper than dismantling or storing and guarding them. Some analysts estimate that perhaps three billion dollars’ worth of small arms and light weapons legally cross national borders each year.
The illegal trade, however, may be much larger. Black-market weapons usually have to be purchased. In some African wars, paramilitary groups have bought hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of small arms and light weapons, not with money, but with diamonds seized from diamond-mining areas. The New York Times commented: “Where governments are corrupt, rebels are pitiless and borders are porous . . . The glittering stones have become agents of slave labor, murder, dismemberment, mass homelessness and wholesale economic collapse.” How ironic that a gemstone traded for assault rifles may later be sold in an elegant jewelry boutique as an expensive symbol of eternal love!
Weapons are also linked to the illegal trade in drugs. It is not unusual for criminal organizations to use the same routes to smuggle drugs in one direction as they use to smuggle guns in the other. Weapons thus have become a virtual currency, bartered for drugs.
After the Guns of War Fall Silent
When wars end, the guns used in them often fall into the hands of criminals. Consider what happened in a country in southern Africa that experienced a shift from politically motivated violence to criminal violence. Political violence there took the lives of some 10,000 people in just three years. When that conflict ended, criminal violence soared. Competition between taxi drivers resulted in “taxi wars,” where thugs were hired to shoot the passengers and drivers of rival companies. Increasingly, military-type assault rifles were used in robberies and other crimes. The number of homicides committed with guns reached 11,000 in one recent year, the second-highest rate in the world for countries not at war.
The knowledge that criminals are armed and dangerous creates fear and insecurity. In many developing countries, the wealthy live in virtual fortresses, surrounded by walls and electrified fences that are guarded day and night. Residents of developed countries also take precautions. This is true even in places that have not experienced civil strife.
So both in lands where there is war and in lands where there is “peace,” guns contribute to instability. No human can measure the deadly work of guns; nor can we tally the dead, the wounded, the bereaved, and the shattered lives. Yet, we do know that the world is awash with arms and that their numbers keep rising. Increasingly, voices cry for something to be done. But what can be done? What will be done? These are the questions we will consider in the following article.
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An Ex-fighter Feels “Pretty Stupid”
A boy soldier who fought in the same war that made refugees of the people spoken of in the first article suddenly became idle and penniless in the city that he had helped to conquer. He spoke with bitterness about seeing his leader’s son riding around town on a flashy motorcycle and former warlords jockeying for power and vying for respectability. “When I think of the five years I spent in the bush, killing people and being shot at, I feel pretty stupid,” said the fighter. “We were giving our lives for people who by tomorrow won’t remember how they got where they are.”
COVER and page 7: Boy soldier: Nanzer/Sipa Press
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“No Place to Hide”
The modern assault rifle, lethal though it is, has limitations. It shoots only bullets. It cannot kill people hidden behind strong walls or barricades. In the panic of combat, a soldier’s aim may not be steady. Hand-held, even under ideal circumstances it is accurate only up to 500 yards [460 m].
The U.S. military has a solution for such “problems”—a new, high-tech, all-purpose rifle called the Objective Individual Combat Weapon (OICW). Light enough to be held by a single soldier, the OICW will shoot not only bullets but also 20-millimeter explosive shells—grenades. Another unique feature: It can kill enemies who hide behind barricades. All the soldier has to do is to aim the gun at a point immediately above or beside the intended target. The gun automatically calibrates the distance to the chosen target and presets a tiny electronic fuse on the grenade so that it will detonate at exactly the right distance, spraying the victim with armor-piercing shrapnel. “Its unique capabilities will enable U.S. combat troops to virtually shoot around corners,” said a representative of the company at work on the weapon. An infrared sight will enable the weapon to perform effectively even in darkness.
From this gun there is “no place to hide,” boast its makers, who also claim that the weapon will be five times more lethal than the M16 and the M203 grenade launcher at up to twice the range. Soldiers using it do not have to fret about a steady aim; they need only look through the viewfinder and pull the trigger to unleash a fusillade of bullets and grenades. If development continues according to schedule, the first military unit will be equipped with the OICW by the year 2007.
Critics, however, are asking questions: How will the gun be used when soldiers patrol crowded neighborhoods where enemy combatants are likely to be among innocent civilians? What happens when the OICW is sold to militaries throughout the world who may turn them against their own people? And what happens when the weapon gets into the hands of terrorists and criminals?
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Small arms and light weapons are often bartered for diamonds and drugs