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U.S. Plays Key Role In Small Arms Proliferation

by Thalif Deen

U.S. Sold 1 Million Handguns to Third World
(IPS) UNITED NATIONS -- The National Rifle Association (NRA), one of the most influential pro-gun lobbies in the United States, argues that "guns don't kill people, only people kill people."

But Natalie Goldring, executive director of the Program on Global Security and Disarmament at the University of Maryland, believes the NRA slogan is cynically flawed.

She says that guns not only kill about half a million people every year but, more importantly, many of those weapons overseas originate in the United States.

Goldring cites a new 329-page study on small arms which says there are at least 639 million firearms currently in circulation, of which 59 percent are legally held by civilians.

"Virtually all of the world's illegal small arms originate as legal weapons," Goldring told IPS, "and many of them were manufactured in the United States."

The study, 'Small Arms Survey, 2003' published by the Geneva-based Graduate Institute of International Studies, points out that the United States, with roughly 83 to 96 guns per 100 people, is approaching the statistical level of one gun per man, woman and child.

"This enormous excess of weapons fuels violence, increases the human and economic costs when conflict occurs, and hinders development in our cities and towns," Goldring said.

She said that the administration of President George W. Bush appears to see small arms and light weapons as a problem only outside the United States.

However, the 'Small Arms Survey' demonstrates once again that the United States is awash in guns, she said. These guns contribute to the global epidemic of guns and gun violence.

"It is ironic that the Bush administration understands the need to gather up weapons in Iraq, but apparently sees no need to do so in the United States," she added.

The study singles out the United States as home to the largest number of small arms producers.

Additionally, the United States is one of the world's major exporters of light weapons, and is estimated to have between 238 million and 276 million firearms.

Goldring said the survey documents the important role of U.S. companies and the U.S. government "in contributing to instability and destruction around the world."

Since the terrorist attacks on the United States in Sept. 2001, there has been speculation that the sales of small arms would increase dramatically. "Unfortunately, there is very little data to support or refute these assumptions," the study said.

In an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times Monday, Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Center for Defence Information in Washington DC, said the global war on terrorism has virtually eclipsed the seemingly smaller and less-pressing issue of small arms. "That was unfortunate," she said. "Looking at the nature of violence, and conflict in the world today, it is clear that the proliferation of small arms and light weapons -- including assault weapons, rifles and handguns, as well as such weapons as grenades and mortars -- must be front and center in any strategy to end small wars and combat terrorism."

Stohl said the United States and other governments around the world have the opportunity to re-engage on the small arms issue at the U.N. conference currently underway, and assess progress made on combating the proliferation of these weapons.

"It is imperative that states take their global obligations on small arms seriously," she added.

Speaking on behalf of the United States, Lincoln Bloomfield told the U.N. conference Monday that the primary problem was the ready availability of lethal weapons of war in the "wrong hands."

"The international community must work even more energetically to curb the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons," he said. "The United States was ready to engage in practical ways of reducing the terrible costs being exacted by those illicit weapons of local destruction."

Meanwhile, the small arms study refutes the popular belief that Europeans are virtually unarmed. "While it is tempting to contrast peace-loving Europe against gun-wielding America, careful analysis shows that this is not confirmed by facts," it says.

Contrary to assumptions, the 15 countries of the European Union have an estimated 84 million firearms. Of this, about 80 percent or 67 million are in civilian hands.

In countries such as Finland, France and Germany, gun laws are relatively permissive and rates of gun ownership may be about one-half the U.S. level.

A wave of serious gun crimes, including recent massacres in France, Germany, and Switzerland, show that random, large-scale firearms violence is not an exclusively American phenomenon.

The report notes that the global small arms industry has not significantly changed either in terms of value or volume of production.

The global value of small arms production -- including military-style small arms and commercial firearms -- remains unchanged at about 7.5 billion to 8 billion dollars annually. The illicit trade is estimated at less than one billion dollars per year.

The number of producing countries has also remained virtually constant at 98 (many of whom have small-scale or dormant production facilities). The largest small arms exporters, by value, are the European Union and the United States.

The study also said that illicit small arms production is widespread in many parts of the world, and although economically insignificant, it is an important source of weapons in many places.

In a foreword to the latest Human Development Report released Tuesday, the Administrator of the U.N. Development Programme Mark Malloch Brown said that small arms have an insidious effect on development.

"They undermine the safety and security of communities, threaten livelihoods and destroy social networks," he said.

At best they hold back, and at worst, contribute to the reversal of hard-won development gains, Malloch Brown said.

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Albion Monitor January 14, 2004 (

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