Credit: IRIN
Cate Buchanan
Manager of the Human Security and Small Arms Programme at the Geneva-based Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue. The Programme, created in 2001, contains a portfolio of projects that have sought to examine and prioritise greater understanding of the human cost of weapons availability and misuse. Such projects range from a multi-year, multi-country study of the perceptions of humanitarian workers of gun violence; a quarterly Bulletin which examines a variety of thematic and regional concerns; an accessible policy and advocacy guide to the small arms issue designed for the humanitarian community to engage with the small arms issue; a project examining the inclusion (and otherwise) of disarmament and weapons control in peace agreements and peace processes ; and finally, a policy 'road map' for the UN process on small arms control, a publication which is widely regarded as a clear and compelling framework for a human security approach to the small arms crisis. Publications related to these projects are all available in various languages at

QUESTION: In 1997, a Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms decided to define “small arms” as those weapons designed for personal use and “light weapons” as those designed for use by several persons serving as a crew. Are these definitions useful?

ANSWER: This was a negotiated definition – and therefore a political one. From a policy-making perspective it has its advantages and drawbacks. Among its advantages are that it groups together weapons that are easily portable and highly lethal, and whose manufacture, trade and use are not currently subject to a legally binding international agreement.

Further, the definition usefully does not separate weapons designed for military use from commercial weapons – reflecting the reality that both types are available to a wide range of users, uniformed and civilian, legal and illegal. They are grouped together because ultimately they share more similarities than differences.

On the other hand, the definition does not include things like craft-made weapons – those produced by hand, which is common in many places.

The question of ammunition and explosives is also a growing concern. In the context of the international efforts to control small arms, ammunition was originally included in the scope of the United Nations Programme of Action on small arms, but recent debates and events appear to have rolled back this understanding.

Q: Can small arms be used “legitimately”?

A: Whereas what is “legal” depends on applicable local, national and international laws governing small arms, what is “legitimate” is more difficult to determine, requiring in addition respect for principles of necessity, proportionality and accountability.

The problem is that you can never guarantee the legitimate use of small arms. As long as small arms are widely available and cheap, they will be misused in ill-disciplined hands.

Q: Which groups in particular are likely to misuse small arms?

A: Small-arms misuse occurs wherever guns are – and they are everywhere, so the range of misuses and situations is wide. Gun violence occurs between individual civilians as well as collectives, such as insurgents and rebel factions, and by state agents such as the police or military.

The Small Arms Survey, an independent research project based in Geneva, has found that there are more gun homicides committed by civilians (around 200,000 every year) than direct deaths in armed conflict (around 100,000 per year). Even in situations of armed conflict, a recent study on relief and development worker victimisation conducted by the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Small Arms Survey has demonstrated that it is civilians armed with guns, rather than organised armed groups, who pose the greatest consistent threat.

Civilian misuse is widespread and an area which deserves far greater attention. It is particularly significant when you consider that 60 percent of the world’s estimated 640 million guns are in the hands of civilians – in varying states of legality.

Q: What demands motivate the acquisition and misuse of small arms?

A: The key factors influencing gun acquisition – so-called “demand” factors – have been categorised in four groups: personal security; socioeconomic stability; individual status, identity and belonging; and political identity and group status. All four factors motivate the acquisition and use – or misuse – of weapons.

Demand factors in general are underreported, with news reports often not looking beyond the violence itself, and policy makers concentrating much more on restricting the supply of weapons. Also poorly understood are the factors that counterbalance the urge to use guns to resolve conflict or promote power in some form. Equally important questions to be asking include, what factors lead people in the same community not to possess a gun? And can this teach us something about possible interventions to reduce gun violence?

Q: Which groups are most vulnerable to small-arms abuse and why?

A: Young men are overwhelmingly the dominant users and abusers of guns, as well as the primary victims of armed violence: Over 90 percent of gun-related homicides occur among men, as do 88 percent of gun-related suicides. Poor and disenfranchised men are particularly at risk. This point is so obvious that it does not yet get the attention it deserves – but this is changing.

This is not to minimise the impact of small arms on women and girls, who are routinely killed, abused or coerced at the point of a gun – predominantly guns wielded by men. Indeed, the impact of small-arms violence cannot be calculated by measuring the death toll alone: Injuries, intimidation, coercion or a simple restriction of movements are other serious consequences of gun violence and misuse.

The reasons for the vulnerability of these groups in particular is a very complex and important question, but the fact that men are the majority of users and victims of small arms violence points to a relationship between masculinity and weapons use and misuse. Research shows that male gun violence is deeply entwined with issues of male entitlement to power and insecurity, as well as class and race issues.

Q: In what ways are children particularly affected by armed violence?

A: Across Africa and Asia, children are coerced or recruited into fighting forces, private security and other jobs, which require them to carry arms and to fight. At least 10 countries continue to use child soldiers in armed conflicts. Many “recruiters” are themselves armed, and this means that the gun in the hands of the recruiter is a key determinant in children ending up as soldiers.

In the eyes of armed groups, the use of children has clear advantages. They can be easily controlled and forced to do dangerous jobs; they fill out the ranks when adult males are unavailable or cannot be coerced; and so on. From the child’s point of view, those who are not recruited against their will may see few other options. Their families may not be functional, and they may find a sense of belonging in a group they do not find elsewhere, as well as a livelihood.

In developed countries where guns are prevalent among civilians, children often access them and use them to commit suicide or to intentionally or accidentally kill others. Illicit drug gangs in the Americas are also staffed by armed young people – principally young men – who act as couriers and soldiers.

Q: What role do guns play in the perpetration of violence against women? Would improved gun control laws help reduce incidents of sexual violence?

A: Certainly, guns are used to facilitate sexual violence against women and girls both in wartime and peacetime. This is common in times of war, when social controls break down even further. But unfortunately, even the peacetime social norms of many societies include and even condone violence against women.

Guns exert a powerful coercive effect. Thus, if guns are instrumental in the commission of sexual violence against women, it makes perfect sense to address the availability of guns as a way of reducing rape. It may actually be “easier” to first focus on the gun, because the attitudes that underpin rape and other forms of sexual violence in a given society can take a very long time to alter. The control of guns can often provide a useful entry point for wide discussions about violence prevention.

Addressing the availability of guns means establishing licensing and record-keeping systems to keep track of who owns what guns, so that each gun is uniquely identified with its owner, who is legally responsible and accountable for it. In Canada, police are authorised to confiscate guns from the homes of domestic abusers when called to the scene. Although there is no correlation between these laws and a reduction in rape in Canada, over the past 15 years femicides committed with guns have plummeted 75 percent, compared to a drop of 25 percent for femicides not committed with guns.

Q: How has the nature of human-rights violations been altered by the use of guns?

A: Human-rights abuses of course take place without guns, and they would still occur if small arms did not exist. The question is whether they would be as prevalent and lethal. The answer is no. It is hard to imagine a small group of people terrorising and forcibly evicting entire communities without weapons such as the AK-47. It is often noted that although the majority of killings in the Rwanda genocide were committed with blades, guns were needed to round up the victims and keep them surrounded before killing them. That is the dynamic that guns bring to human-rights abuses.

If an unarmed soldier beats a civilian while an armed soldier looks on, clearly the gun is involved in the violence on some level. Removing the gun from the equation makes flight possible, and thus reduces the chance of violent injury or death.

Q: What are the indirect consequences of armed violence, and how significant are they?

A: The indirect impacts of armed violence include a range of consequences that, while difficult to quantify, are wide-ranging. For example, when large numbers of people are forced to flee from their homes at gunpoint, many of those people will suffer nonviolent deaths and malnutrition, disease and starvation. In some sense, those deaths are attributable to the guns, since without the guns the displacement would not have occurred in the first place. The same occurs with sexual violence against women and girls. Other secondary impacts include reducing or eliminating development gains. Widespread armed violence contributes to economic collapse, damaged or destroyed urban infrastructure, and the withdrawal of private investment.

The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue and the Small Arms Survey have also documented how small arms in the hands of both civilians and armed groups leads to another secondary impact: a reduction in humanitarian assistance. Routine armed threats to aid workers reduce access to beneficiaries of aid assistance and development programming, and lead to interruptions or closures of operations. As these services are often the primary sources of assistance to populations in dire need, the impacts of a few armed attacks can be catastrophic for thousands.

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