Small Arms—they cause 90% of civilian casualties

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This page last updated

The growing availability of small arms has been a major factor in the increase in the number of conflicts, and in hindering smoother rebuilding and development after a conflict has ended. It is estimated, for example, that:

  • There are around half a billion military small arms around the world;
  • Some 300,000 to half a million people around the world are killed by them each year;
  • They are the major cause of civilian casualties in modern conflicts.

This section attempts to look at some of the issues surrounding small arms.

On this page:

  1. What are Small Arms?
  2. Civilians Affected Most by Small Arms
    1. Small Arms are an Ever-Present Problem
    2. Small Arms Linger Long After Conflicts are Over and Hinders Development and Rebuilding
    3. Small Arms are Proliferated Through Both Legal and Illegal Trade
    4. Small Arms Cause Mass Destruction
  3. People and Governments are Trying to Address the Issues
    1. UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms, July 2001
    2. United Nations Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and the Programme of Action, 7-11 July 2003
  4. More Information

What are Small Arms?

Child with a gun
© Panos Pictures1

Small arms include weapons such as

  • hand guns2
  • pistols
  • sub-machine guns
  • mortars
  • landmines
  • grenades
  • light missiles.

There are many more which are often not regarded officially as small weapons, as described by Philippe Riviere, in Small Arms Cover-up; The problem of proliferation3, Le Monde diplomatique, January 2001

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Civilians Affected Most by Small Arms

Consider, for example, the following:

  • Modern conflicts claim an estimated half a million people each year 4. 300,000 of these are from conflicts, and 200,000 are from homicides and suicides.
  • Over 80 percent of all these casualties have been civilian
  • 90 percent of civilian casualties are caused by small arms 5. This is far higher than the casualty count from conventional weapons of war like tanks, bomber jets or warships.
  • Estimates of the black market trade in small arms range from US$2-10 billion a year.6
  • Every minute, someone is killed by a gun 7
  • At least 1,134 companies in 98 countries worldwide are involved8 in some aspect of the production of small arms and/or ammunition.
  • Civilians purchase more than 80% of all the firearms that are currently manufactured worldwide each year.
  • There are at least 639 million firearms in the world today, of which 59% are legally held by civilians.

Small Arms are an Ever-Present Problem

Some of the factors include that small arms are often

  • Long-life;
  • Low maintenance;
  • Relatively cheap and easily available;
  • Highly portable and so easily concealable.

The above therefore makes it easy for things like:

  • Illicit trafficking;
  • Operation by young children. (There are an estimated 300,000 child soldiers9 in the world.)

Professor Robert Neild of Cambridge University is quite blunt about it, too:

It has been estimated that there are now about 500 million small arms and light weapons in circulation in the world, one for every twelve people. Gone long ago is the time when we Europeans could subdue other continents because we had firearms and the local peoples had not. In 1999 it was reported that an AK-47 assault rifle could be bought in Uganda for the price of a chicken.

Robert Neild, Public Corruption; The Dark Side of Social Evolution, (London: Anthem Press, 2002), p. 131

Small Arms Linger Long After Conflicts are Over and Hinders Development and Rebuilding

As the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs describes, Small arms and light weapons destabilise regions10. This is because they

  • Spark, fuel and prolong conflicts;
  • Obstruct relief programmes;
  • Undermine peace initiatives;
  • Exacerbate human rights abuses;
  • Hamper development; and
  • Foster a culture of violence.

The Control Arms Campaign also notes that

… illicit drugs production thrives on territory outside the control of recognised governments, and 95 per cent of the world’s production of hard drugs takes place in contexts of armed conflict. Valuable natural resources are illegally exploited by armed groups and their state sponsors, ruining millions of lives and impeding local development, as has occurred in DRC. International trade suffers and illicit markets thrive, to the detriment of national economies.

Towards an Arms Trade Treaty; Next steps for the UN Programme of Action11, Control Arms, July 2005, p.8

However, as the UN also adds, unlike nuclear, chemical and biological weapons, there are no international treaties or other legal instruments for dealing with these weapons, which States and also individual legal owners rely on for their defense needs.

During the cold war, many nations were flooded with small arms by powerful nations such as the USA and the former Soviet Union and their major allies. Even though the cold war has ended, the small arms still remain and help fuel political and ethnic differences into conflict.

Small Arms are Proliferated Through Both Legal and Illegal Trade

For example, an extensive report from Oxfam in 1998 revealed that UK involvement in the small arms trade is much higher than previously acknowledged12. Between 1995 and 1997, UK sold small arms to over 100 countries.

The five permanent members of the UN Security Council—France, Russia, China, the UK, and the USA—together account for 88 per cent of the world’s conventional arms exports; and these exports contribute regularly to gross abuses of human rights. as a report from the control arms campaign, Shattered Lives13, mentions.

As the report notes further:

The lack of arms controls allows some to profit from the misery of others.

  • While international attention is focused on the need to control weapons of mass destruction, the trade in conventional weapons continues to operate in a legal and moral vacuum.
  • More and more countries are starting to produce small arms, many with little ability or will to regulate their use.
  • Permanent UN Security Council members—the USA, UK, France, Russia, and China—dominate the world trade in arms.
  • Most national arms controls are riddled with loopholes or barely enforced.
  • Key weaknesses are lax controls on the brokering, licensed production, and end use of arms.
  • Arms get into the wrong hands through weak controls on firearm ownership, weapons management, and misuse by authorised users of weapons.
The Arms Bazaar 14, Shattered Lives, Chapter 4, p. 54, Control Arms Campaign, October 2003

This presents a huge obstacle to development in some of these countries. Furthermore, Control Arms, in another paper in 2005 noted that many countries are invovled in this trade.

Measuring SALW [Small Arms and Light Weapons] transfers by financial value [alone] ignores the potentially huge impact of relatively small-value transfers. Assault rifles cost only a few hundred dollars each—but only a few hundred such rifles can lead to major instability, with catastrophic effects for civilian populations.

The international arms trade is not based solely in the North. At least 92 countries have the capacity to produce small arms or ammunition, and around half of these are developing countries. Some of this is production licensed from manufacturers in rich industrialised countries…

Countries which are not renowned for the manufacture of weapons often play an important role in the transit and transfer of arms. For example, Viet Nam has reportedly transferred weapons to Myanmar; Lebanon, Liberia, Burkina Faso, and Niger have transferred weapons to Sierra Leone; Namibia to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Angola; Burkina Faso to Benin.

…Thus arms transfers involve all countries, whether they suffer the effects of arms or transfer weapons—not only newly manufactured arms, but re-exported, second-hand, surplus, or collected weapons, and weapons in transit.

Towards an Arms Trade Treaty; Next steps for the UN Programme of Action15, Control Arms, July 2005, p.8

A documentary back in 1998, from the Center for Defense Information, describes the problems of small arms as epidemic16.

Small Arms Cause Mass Destruction

The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) describes that, in effect, small arms are weapons of mass destruction17. Summarizing and quoting IANSA:

  • Small arms are a Big Problem
  • Small arms are Big Business
  • Small arms lead to Big Damage
    • 300,000 deaths a year from conflicts
    • 200,000 deaths in peacetime nations (from homicides, suicides, unintentional shootings and shootings by police)
    • 2 million children are thought to have been killed since 1990 with small arms
    • 1.5 million non-fatal injuries each year
    • They also have a humanitarian impact:
      • Guns are the primary tools used to force families and entire villages to flee their homes
      • During humanitarian crisis, armed people can make it harder, or impossible, for the most needy to get aid.
      • Small arms inhibit development.
  • Small arms present a Global Challenge

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People and Governments are Trying to Address the Issues

A documentary from the Center for Defense Information in 1998 suggested that one step towards peace and stability in some regions can be taken by stopping the flow of small arms18.

There have been a number of examples of governments and people trying to address the issues. For a small example:

There had been an increase in pressure to discuss disarmament issues and the United Nations was trying to seek a moratorium 19 on small arms trade. The G8 (the world’s major economies plus Russia—also the world’s major arms suppliers) met in Birmingham, UK, 15–17 May, 1998, as part of their annual meetings. Small arms was a major topic of discussion.

In Oslo, Norway, July 1998, there was a meeting where representatives from a number of countries were present to tackle and control the spread of small arms. Although some major producers of small arms were not in attendance, this was still seen as a positive20 step forward.

South Africa21 started to take a positive step forward by attempting to tackle the problem that it has created in the past of availability of small arms in Africa and other parts of the world. Yet, as the section below on the UN conference on the illicit arms trade shows, they were against certain moves to tackle exporting of arms to troubled areas.

For the first time in the United Nation’s history, the issue of small arms was finally22 a topic of conversation at a UN Security Council meeting in 1999, where Kofi Annan also noted the efforts of NGOs in this. NGOs are often doing the hard work and are in the front line. When it comes to small arms, they have been working diligently to fight the effects of small arms. This is not an easy undertaking given the amount of small arms that are traded legally and illegally.

Also in 1999, the UN General Assembly voted to hold a Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects which was to occur two years after this conference:

UN Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms, July 2001

Since the beginning of the conference on 9 July [2001], an estimated 25,000 people worldwide will have been killed by small arms.

UN Conference on Small Arms on the brink of failure23, Amnesty International, July 20, 2001

A UN conference was set up from 9th to 20th July, 2001, to try and address issues regarding the proliferation of small arms in conflict zones. Amongst the numerous issues at hand, some major gun-producing countries such as the United States, China, Russia, India, and others were against effective universal criteria against arms export. In fact, it is interesting to note the United Statess’ stance on this, as reported by the radio show, Democracy Now!:

John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, bluntly told the delegates that The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms. He also said the United States, the largest supplier of arms worldwide, would not support moves to outlaw any arming of rebel groups, nor would it help fund a campaign by human rights groups to raise awareness of the trade. He also said the U.S. would not support a ban on private ownership of military weapons, including assault rifles and grenade launchers.

Amy Goodman, A Ban on Private Ownership of Military Weapons Including Assault Rifles and Grenade Launchers? Bush Administration Just Says No24, Democracy Now!, July 11, 2001. (An interview with various activists and campaigners around the world on the UN Conference on small arms.)

This is a remarkable position, as one must note how much controversy and concern was raised in the U.S. when there were revelations about Chinese influences in previous elections. That led to such vehement statements by U.S. politicians. Yet, the above statement says that while others should not be involved in such political interference, it is ok for the U.S. to do this (and, historically, more) to others.

As the Guardian in Britain reported, the United Kingdom, a close ally of the U.S., offered £19.5m to UN efforts to curb the supply of small arms25, and yet, the US is opposed to even a commitment to negotiations on a binding legal agreement. (emphasis added). A partial reason for this, as explained in the Guardian article, is due to the influential gun lobby in the U.S.

On a slightly lighter note, there was the following response to a comment from someone against the UN conference:

[Amy Goodman]: Phylis Schlafly founded the Eagle Forum, a conservative force in this country [the United States] … and she says about the UN conference, that the purpose of conference is to demonize the private ownership of guns and get government to confiscate all privately owned guns. She says, don’t be misled by the term of illicit trade. UN documents make it clear that since most illegal guns start out as legal purchases, illicit trade must be stopped by clamping down on legal gun owners. And adds, don’t think this UN conference is just a talk fest. It’s scheduled to produce a legally binding treaty to require governments to mark, number, register, record, license, confiscate and destroy all guns except those in the hands of the military and the police. What’s your response to that?

[Cesar Villaneuva]: I hope that, that will be true.

Amy Goodman, A Ban on Private Ownership of Military Weapons Including Assault Rifles and Grenade Launchers? Bush Administration Just Says No26, Democracy Now!, July 11, 2001. (An interview with various activists and campaigners around the world on the UN Conference on small arms.)

As with the John Bolton comment, the above confuses the issue of of domestic gun control with the trade and transfer of small arms and light weapons across international borders, which is what the UN conference was about.

As with numerous other international issues, this issue has been putting the U.S. at odds with many of its other allies, such as various European nations.

As the session was nearing a close, Human Rights Watch was raising concerns27 that this conference would [fail] to produce a serious plan of action. They further pointed out that, Many delegates have tried to single out shadowy gunrunners as the chief culprits, while neglecting the governmental role in supplying the weapons used to commit atrocities.

Amnesty International also pointed out28 that when some countries tried to get committments that small arms wouldn’t be sold where there was a high risk of human rights violations, or fueling tensions etc, the USA, China, many ASEAN countries, the Arab Group and South Africa, were amongst those governments that blocked moves to secure such commitments.

As the conference ended, the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) described29 the result as a squandered opportunity as the final agreement was watered down so much. The Washington D.C.-based Center for Defence Information also described30 how the United States repeatedly used its political capital to weaken the Programme of Action:

The Conference, held July 9-20, 2001, began on a rather sour tone with the statement of U.S. Under Secretary of State John Bolton, who expressed the U.S. position on the issue of small arms and the Conference in no uncertain terms. Bolton stressed that the Conference should address only the illicit transfer of military style weapons, excluding firearms and non-military rifles (the weapons responsible for terrible carnage and destruction around the world every year).

Bolton bluntly stated the position of the United States in front of the ministerial-level portion of the meeting, describing the U.S. redlines, items unacceptable for inclusion in the Conference plan. Bolton stated that the United States could not support a final Conference document that included:

  • restrictions on the legal trade and manufacture of small arms and light weapons;
  • promotion of international advocacy by NGOs and international organizations;
  • restrictions on the sale of small arms and light weapons to entities other than governments;
  • a mandatory review conference; and
  • a commitment to begin discussions on legally binding agreements.
Rachel Stohl, UN Conference on Small Arms Concludes With Consensus31, Weekly Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, Volume 5, Issue #29, July 26, 2001

The final Programme of Action was created, but weakened:

The final debate centered on the U.S. refusal to allow any mention of restrictions on sales to non-state actors, with several African states taking the opposite position. In the end, the Africans relented and all paragraphs related to non-state actors and civilian possession were stricken from the action plan.

The United States repeatedly used its political capital to weaken the Programme of Action and block progress in the debate. While the United States had clearly defined the items that would receive no U.S. support, the United States did not publicly push U.S. best practices on export criteria or on export controls. In addition, the United States did not push for an international agreement on brokering (or the beginning of discussions of such an agreement).

… Although many compromises could not be reached, the Conference document did succeed in establishing a comprehensive approach, and included recognition of the grave humanitarian consequences caused by the proliferation of small arms. In addition, states now have a document on which they can base their future work on small arms. The Conference also agreed on a follow-up conference no later than 2006 with the precise date to be determined by the General Assembly at its 58th session, and biennial conferences to gauge progress on the implementation of the Programme of Action.

Rachel Stohl, UN Conference on Small Arms Concludes With Consensus32, Weekly Defense Monitor, Center for Defense Information, Volume 5, Issue #29, July 26, 2001

As IANSA summarized 33, the programme of action committs governments to:

  • Make illicit gun production/possession a criminal offence
  • Establish a national coordination agency on small arms
  • Identify and destroy stocks of surplus weapons
  • Keep track of officially-held guns
  • Issue end-user certificates for exports/transit
  • Notify the original supplier nation of re-export
  • Disarmament, Demobilisation & Re-integration (DDR) of ex-combatants, including collection and destruction of their weapons
  • Support regional agreements and encourage moratoria
  • Mark guns at point of manufacture for identification and tracing
  • Maintain records of gun manufacture
  • Engage in more information exchange
  • Ensure better enforcement of arms embargoes
  • Include civil society organisations in efforts to prevent small arms proliferation

However, as IANSA adds, the programme provides no international mechanism for monitoring compliance, and the UN’s role has been limited to compiling information submitted by states on a voluntary basis.

I must … express my disappointment over the Conference’s inability to agree, due to the concerns of one State, on language recognizing the need to establish and maintain controls over private ownership of these deadly weapons and the need for preventing sales of such arms to non-State groups. The states of the region most afflicted by this global crisis, Africa, had agreed only with the greatest of reluctance to the deletion of proposed language addressing these vital issues… They did so strictly in the interests of reaching a compromise that would permit the world community as a whole to proceed together with some first steps at the global level to alleviate this common threat.

Ambassador Reyes of Columbia, Conference President at the conclusion of the 2001 conference, quoted from UN Meeting on Small Arms July 7-11: A battle between rich and poor?34, ID21, July 3, 2003

(The official UN web site for this conference35 also contains the full text36 of the Programme is available on the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs.)

A follow-up biennial conference to guage the progress of the programme was held in July 2003.

United Nations Biennial Meeting of States on Small Arms and the Programme of Action, 7-11 July 2003

This follow-up meeting was to consider the national, regional and global implementation of the Programme of Action agreed at the 2001 UN Conference and for governments to report their progress and lessons learned in the first two years of implementing it.

Leading up to the meeting, IANSA noted how many states had progressed poorly so far 37 on this issue, under their obligations to the Programme of Action.

Human Rights Watch detailed misuse of small arms38 by many governments and groups around the world.

Robert Muggah, senior researcher at the Small Arms Survey—the principle international source of public information on all aspects of small arms based in Geneva—detailed that the issue also involves a difference between the rich and poor 39. The NGO, ID21, summarized Muggah’s report noting that:

  • People living in poor countries in Africa and the Americas are more than twice as likely to die a violent death as those living in rich European countries.
  • Many of these deaths are due to the misuse of small arms, the ownership of which has spread throughout poor communities as a result of war and the insecurities of poverty.
  • The spread of small arms is both an effect and a cause of underdevelopment and poverty.
    • Small arms misuse means that instead of making investments in improving their well-being and economic development, the already poor are burdened with the cost of nursing the injured and paying for informal forms of security such as vigilantism and para-militaries.
    • Yet much of the initiative to reduce and control small arms has been left to the poor communities themselves, with little help from international governments or agencies.
  • One of the causes behind the inaction of some of the world’s wealthiest states is domestic politics and economic self-interest.
    • On the political front, not all governments in a position to donate funds towards small arms control recognise civilian ownership of arms as a problem.
    • In terms of economic self-interest, a number of governments are also reluctant to be involved in initiatives which seek to reduce armed violence by restraining local markets in small arms. The value of the legal global trade in small arms is estimated at 4 billion US dollars per year. The estimated value of the illegal global trade in small arms is an additional 1 billion US dollars. Yet the UN’s current Programme of Action on arms control focuses only on illegal trade in small arms, despite the fact that most illegally sold arms initially come from legal sources.

IANSA summarized the outcome of the meeting as having some critical positives, and some negatives:

The UN Biennial Meeting of States on small arms produced a number of significant outcomes, including:

  • The UN Group of Experts on Marking and Tracing released a report indicating that it is feasible to have an instrument on weapons tracing, and a recommendation for such an implementation will be submitted to the General Assembly. It is clear that we need a legally binding instrument on tracing, which includes marking, record keeping and international cooperation. IANSA will support this measure and push for its adoption.
  • …[An] EU statement on brokering, which calls for a registry of arms brokers, exchange of information between states and adequate sanctions to ensure effective enforcement of brokering controls.
  • A number of UN agencies, including UNDP, WHO, UNIFEM and UNIDIR, have made strong statements about the human costs of small arms proliferation, and clearly recognize that this process must be focussed on reducing the damage and destruction on individuals caused by small arms.
  • …While less than half of all governments—about 80—submitted reports to the conference, this is more than have previously ever done so.

Despite these achievements, a number of challenges remain:

  • Member states are still far away from achieving global legal standards, which would help keep small arms away from human rights abusers. This is particularly important as delegates and civil society from Africa, the Middle East and Central America, among other regions, are facing crises of armed conflict.
  • We need greater recognition that domestic laws and international policies are interdependent, and that each country’s national laws affect the small arms proliferation problems of its neighbours and even countries in other regions.
  • We need greater recognition that the legal and the illegal markets for small arms are inter-related, that many illicit transfers start out as legal ones, and that small arms are responsible for deaths and destruction whether they are technically held illegally or not.
  • The minimal requirement on governments to report to the UN on their small arms activities and efforts is woefully low and must be raised.
Small Arms now Firmly on Global Policy Agendas, Say NGOs40, International Action Network on Small Arms, July 11, 2003

You can also find out more about this meeting from the official United Nations web site for this conference41.

Various efforts have resulted in codes of conducts and even a call for an Arms Trade Treaty. These are discussed in more depth in the next section on this site.

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More Information

For more information, the following links are good places to start:

  • The International Action Network on Small Arms42 has a lot of links and documentation on small arms issues and is a good place to find out more.
  • Small Arms, Big Impact43 has a lot of information, with a lot of tables and statistics.
  • Small Arms, Wrong Hands44 from Oxfam examines the role of the UK as a supplier of small arms to zones of conflict.
  • The Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Trasfers45 (NISAT) combines the resources and networks of its partner organizations to help block the spread of small arms to areas where they are likely to produce conflict, violence and human rights abuses.
  • Small Arms Campaign46 from Human Rights Watch.
  • Small Arms Survey47 is an independent research project serving as the principal international source of public information on all aspects of small arms, and as a resource centre for governments, policy makers, researchers, and activists.
  • Official United Nations web site48 from the UN Department for Disarmament Affairs
  • Control Arms49 is a campaign jointly run by Amnesty International, International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) and Oxfam.
  • The Illicit Arms Trade50 is a basic introduction to the issue of small arms/light weapons trafficking and national and international efforts to control it, from the Federation of American Scientists.
  • Small Arms Survey51 is an international research organization serving as a principle source of information on all aspects of small arms.

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0 articles on “Small Arms—they cause 90% of civilian casualties” and 2 related issues:

Arms Trade—a major cause of suffering

The arms trade is a major cause of human rights abuses. Some governments spend more on military expenditure than on social development, communications infrastructure and health combined. While every nation has the right and the need to ensure its security, in these changing times, arms requirements and procurement processes may need to change too.

Read “Arms Trade—a major cause of suffering” to learn more.


Read “Geopolitics” to learn more.

Author and Page Information

  • by Anup Shah
  • Created:
  • Last updated:

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Document revision history

A couple of additional sources for more information were added as well as a small note on the ease of availability of small arms
Added additional information on the impacts and who trades in small arms (remainder is not updated since October 12, 2003)