A Shot in the Dark

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By Mark Tran

Guardian
June 27, 2006

The National Rifle Association, one of America's most vociferous and effective lobby groups, is up in arms, as it were, over a UN initiative to curb the spread of small arms. Next week, government officials and NGOs will meet in New York for a follow-up conference to a programme of action adopted in 2001. That programme set out a broad set of recommendations to reduce trafficking, proliferation and misuse of guns.


According to the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA), although guns kill more people than any other weapons of war, most gun deaths occur in countries or situations that have nothing to do with war. "Some 200,000 people are shot dead every year in homicides, while a further 50,000 are victims of gun suicides," says Rebecca Peters, the director of IANSA.

The 2001 programme of action laid out several steps for countries to take. The provisions included adequate laws and regulations to prevent the illegal manufacture and trafficking in small arms; a global agreement to ensure that manufacturers mark all weapons for identification and tracing; and the prosecution of illegal gun producers and traffickers.

Progress has been patchy. There is no legally binding instrument for marking and tracing guns, nor is there agreement on how to regulate brokers - intermediaries who arrange or facilitate the transfer of weapons. Brokers often evade prosecution because the weapons they transfer never enter the country where they operate.

Nevertheless, there has been improvement, with stronger gun control laws proposed or passed in countries encompassing Afghanistan (believe it or not), Sierra Leone, Cambodia and the UK. In one of the most encouraging cases, Brazil has taken measures such as the introduction of a register of legally owned firearms in 2003 that saw an 8% drop (3,3234) in gun deaths within a year. Gun sales also plunged from 800,000 in 2003 to just 56,000 in 2004.

Besides meeting to review the 2001 programme of action, NGOs and delegates will also discuss plans for an international arms trade treaty that would introduce a set of global rules to crack down on illicit brokers and traffickers and make suppliers more accountable. Discussion on the treaty, to start in October, has the backing of Britain and British arms manufacturers. "Unless governments act to stop the spread of arms, deadly weapons will continue to fuel violent conflict, state repression, crime and domestic abuse," said Jeremy Hobbs, the Oxfam International director.

More than 45 states back the treaty, but it faces opposition from key countries such as China, Pakistan, India and Russia. The US has stood on the sidelines and NGOs hope that it will take a more active role at next week's conference. Although the meeting and the treaty do not cover legal possession of small arms by the state or individuals, the NRA has taken deep umbrage.

"These dictatorships, terrorist states and so-called 'free' nations of the world plan to meet on our home soil to finalise a UN treaty that would strip all citizens of all nations of their right to self-protection, and strip you of your rights under the second amendment (the right to bear arms)," the NRA fulminated on its website.

Prasad Kariyawasam, the president-delegate of next week's conference and UN ambassador from Sri Lanka, has said that the conference and programme of action were not aimed at banning the individual use of firearms if they were held legally. "The UN programme of action covers only illegal trade, illegal trafficking and illegal brokering," he insisted.

Those protestations will not cut much ice with the NRA.


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