How do small guns cause big international problems?

small arms

I wrote a super-academic paper about small arms and problems that stem from the spread of such weapons. But, unless you’re up-to-date on academic jargon and a specialist in political-science speak, you probably wouldn’t want to read it.

Thankfully, I am writing this alternative (your luck). This blog will take my thesis, condense it, and simplify it. If you’re interested in knowing the problems with small arms at the international level, then this is for you.


What are small arms?

Small arms most-identifiably include M-16s, AK-47s (so assault rifles), and a variety of handguns. But it also includes anything that can be transported with only one person or two … mortars, stinger missiles, etc … The class up from this is light arms (50 caliber machine guns and such), and then conventional arms (tanks and fighter planes). The final step in arms classification is nuclear weapons; which I will write about eventually.


Why are there so many small arms?

Well, that’s a complex question. BUT, the main reason is because they were supplied by the Soviet Union and the United States in all regions during the Cold War.

The United States sent troops into Korea, Laos, and Vietnam, and left LOTS of weapons there. Similarly, Soviet troops went into Afghanistan and left all sorts of small arms during the 1980s. When troops leave conflicts, it’s easier to leave all the old stuff there. Why? Well, first it’s outdate equipment and may be damaged. Second, it’s expensive and time-consuming to inventory it all and then ship it back to the host state. Consequently, it’s left for the local governments to deal with … and they rarely do anything. Maybe minimal lockups. While I would say that military officials are far more responsible today (hopefully), during past conflicts I would say they were not.

But aside from actual troops, each side (US/Soviet) sent small arms to lots of various rebel groups to fight wars on their behalf.

The CIA gave lots of weapons to various Latin American rebels; most notably the Contras and Cuban exiles meant to overthrow Castro (oops, that didn’t work). The US also sent small arms to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to combat the Soviets (later to evolve into al Qaeda).

The Soviets sold arms EVERYWHERE. The AK-47 is the most-popular assault weapon in the world. So popular that the Chinese copied it. These things are everywhere in the Middle East and Africa. Soviets also used post-revolution Cuba as an arms dispersion point, and even sent nuclear weapons there sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis!

After the Cold War the Soviet Union’s high-ranking officers UNLOADED AKs all over the world, and some were caught. Also, arms are shipped from state to state for all sorts of shady things. In former Soviet countries, officers frequently “lost” weapons or they send them under “humanitarian” banners. Actually this just happened when Russia sent “humanitarian” aid into the Ukraine.

Also, Israel is a major arms supplier. This state stepped up it’s arms brokering when the United States backed down a bit during the 1970s.

The consequence of all this Cold War fighting and group arming is that there are LOTS of small arms across the world, and now each region has unique challenges.


Why wasn’t there any control on small arms!?

Because nuclear weapons were the primary concern.


So what are the problems today?

Well, I’ll go through them briefly and regionally.

Middle East: Need I say more?

As I’ve said before, ISIS has US-made weapons. Where do you think they got their initial weapons? Where did al Qaeda get their small arms? They rarely have shiny, new weapons (unless somebody donates them). Rather, they’re leftover Russian and American stockpiles. Look at the fighters; they will either have an AK or an M-16. This is also the same case with poppy (heroin) farmers in the Afghan region.

So in the Middle Eastern region these leftover weapons were raided, stolen, and used to form rebel groups and terrorist organizations as well as drug and warlords. In the case of ISIS, they took small arms and turned them into big arms. They used their superior organizational skills to establish an Islamic state, and they took over military compounds. So, in effect, their small weapons enabled them to take territory, military-grade equipment, and they now are marching closer to Baghdad.

Africa: Africa doesn’t have a lot of money (and most of the money is hoarded by upper classes). So, the general people have very little money, and governmental strength varies from region to region in Africa.

Where there isn’t a government, separate criminal or rebel groups claim authority.

Because of the diamond trade, organized criminal cartels and warlords run various areas. In turn, they use small arms to force people to work, and ensure their territory is secure and their trade is profitable. They have PLENTY of security for their product.

Also, in some cases, these groups are welcome. Why? Because they offer some form of economy in certain regions, and they are the only lifeline to some people. But some cartels fight others, and hence there is constant looming violence. Where did they get their guns? Stealing and raiding them — all the weapons are older, Cold-War era weapons. But once the money comes in, then they can buy new weapons, and hence trigger arms races with neighboring cartels.

In addition, there are poachers who work with diamond brokers, and criminal networks that focus on various crimes. Surprisingly, in many regions, the carjacking trade is very popular. Also, I’ll mention the terrorist group Boko Haram in passing.

Latin America: Similar to Africa, but the big trade here is drug-centric. More-specifically, cocaine is extremely popular. These operations work similar to the diamond traders, and the logistics chains are similar. But the difference is that the drug trade is more-secretive than its diamond counterpart. Because some regions of the world don’t have any issue selling blood diamonds, the trade is pretty well-known. But the drug trade is relatively frowned upon with the exception of a few states.

In addition, lots of rebels refuse to give up their weapons even after revolutions occur. Look at contemporary Columbia (and Columbia has a VERY complex history); they are having difficulties with brokering a rebel-surrendering deal. So, the disarmament of rebels is extremely important. But chances are full disarmament won’t happen. There will always be weapons stashed somewhere.

Asia: Heroin trades. Burma and Thailand especially. Also, there are various rebel groups at  any given time in these regions.

Also, throughout all of these regions, there is human trafficking. In the United States, there is illegal interstate small arms trading, buying, and selling. Not to mention illegal sales to Mexican drug cartels (who may be linked to Latin American cartels).

Finally, drugs, diamonds, illegal animal hides, humans (prostitutes or children mostly), and weapons themselves are bought, sold, and traded all over the world (the US not being exempt).

If you’re a poor farmer from Ghana but know where unsecured firearms are, your best bet is to steal them in the hopes of selling them to a dealer or individual in developed countries who want to buy them. Where an AK-47 goes for around $20 in Africa, an American would pay probably $600; so it’s a very profitable business.


Is anything being done!?

Well, yes. But the measures aren’t overly effective.

Again, the United Nations has tried several measures. These measures, however, are pretty ineffectual. Why? Because the United Nations is a confederation. Also, states themselves have lots of stake in the international arms industry, have “national security” concerns, and generally don’t think that international small arms control is a giant issue in the face of other concerns.

Also, states rarely take a proactive mentality; even if they sign treaties. The trouble in the international system is always getting states to do anything. … Kind of like getting people to do anything; it’s difficult. Can you get a group of people to do anything?

But, here are the measures the United Nations has taken:

1) A protocol that targets international crime syndicates’ arms supplies. This document spells out measures that states can take to prevent interstate criminals from obtaining illegal small arms. It was pretty much an FYI type of thing. So, if the state was interested, then follow these steps to stop international crime.

2) A program of action. This essentially calls states to implement the measures proscribed above. And then states sign it … but in reality nothing really happens. Lots of times there are no contacts for the programs, no phone numbers, no reporting, and generally very little participation.

3) International Tracing Instrument. This is a mechanism where states require manufacturers to mark their weapons and ammunition by some form of laser etching or imprinting. The idea is that if criminals get the weapons, you can at least find out the logistics and source of movement. Again, signed by states, but not much else.

4) Arms Trade Treaty. This is an actual treaty that states can ratify. So, if it gets ratified, then allegedly it becomes domestic law. It aims to regulate the international flow of ALL weapons; from small arms to tanks. As of today, 130 states signed the treaty, but only 67 have ratified it. But a treaty might actually have some effect … if states would participate.

So, these are the measures that the UN has implemented. In addition, there are some regional groups of states that try and tackle regional issues. So, that’s somewhat promising. It’s easier to get groups of like-minded states to cooperate than a diverse crowd of states — look at NATO, it’s pretty effective, and that’s all like-minded states.

The problem is that any state simply overrides any of these policies, procedures, or treaties if they deem it part of “national security.”

Also, the NRA is getting involved as an international interest group. This group ignores all of the problems with leftover weapons (and new weapons). In addition, the NRA fails to acknowledge that gun deaths in the United States is a public health problem, and not a criminal justice one. Why? Because they advocate on behalf of manufacturers. That’s all they do, despite what they say otherwise. They want to keep selling guns. So, there’s that problem.

Overall, there is a general recognition of the problem. But collective action is the problem. The most-obvious and simple solution is to strengthen and proscribe border standards. On some African or Latin American borders, it’s a simple matter of slipping a 20 to the officer to get by with whatever. Probably because the wages are so low for the official, that or the manpower is lacking. Or maybe the organization threatens them or their family.

So, the problems are pretty substantial and difficult to overcome. Because some state governments don’t even have legitimacy, it’s pretty difficult to say that they need to enforce mandated border standards … because the governments themselves are just trying to survive, and maybe they are ruling by an iron fist.

Also, some states WANT to give weapons to others. There’s another problem. The United States most notably has a HUGE stake in keeping the international arms trade traffic at a maximum … because the US is home to lots of manufacturers. It’s the same with Russia and China.

So, the most-important members of the United Nations have stake in selling guns. … It’s no wonder nothing gets done, and it’s no wonder all criminal groups get weapons so easily.


Final thoughts:

There is plenty more to say about why groups arm themselves, organize, and why it happens. I would say that if a group is determined enough, they will find weapons and organize. However, that doesn’t really mean that there should be a surplus of places where you can easily get those arms.

Undoubtedly there have been rebel groups formed all over the place that are populist, and from the people. And those groups are legitimized by consent. But taking up arms is begging for an extremely violent backlash and should only be used as final measures.

Also, I will say that conflict levels increase with the level of diversity. So, the Nordic countries have very little crime, as does Japan. But I would say that a component of that is that they all essentially have the same values, identity, and diversity is lacking. Diversity is a major component driving conflict. So, if it’s not opportunism, it’s probably diversity driving conflict.

This is why the United States swells with violence every so often; because people demand greater, recognized, and formalized diversity. There are organized groups advocating for gay marriage, increased minority employment, equal pay for women, and restrictions on ID laws. Why? Because they are demanding greater diversity.

Realistically speaking, there are some parts of the world that need a bottom-up revolution. But rigging that is probably not the way to go, because it isn’t sustainable and doesn’t embed the necessary understanding of what it means to be a country. Why won’t Iraq work? Because nobody understands what Iraq should be, and nobody agrees. The Sunni, Shia, and Kurds are all paranoid of a bloodbath. So ISIS has decided to forcefully take it.

So ironically overthrowing a brutal dictator made things worse. Democracy is essentially impossible because of the irreconcilable differences in identity. Maybe at the end of the conflict there won’t be “Iraq,” and it will be divided, which may happen. But one thing is for sure; even though democracy failed in Iraq, it was really never given a real shot. And ISIS organizing, taking weapons, and forcefully claiming territory by theocratic law is probably not the optimal outcome. And I would blame the availability of weapons that contributed to that problem.

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