Light weapons, heavy losses | Sunday Observer

Light weapons, heavy losses

The underworld has access to a variety of weapons
The underworld has access to a variety of weapons

The deadly twin shootings in the US (in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio) have once again brought into sharp focus the issue of widespread availability and circulation of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) as well as military-grade weapons not just in the US but also throughout the world. Small arms are responsible for armed violence in many different contexts, from urban violence to conflict and crisis zones, from organised crime to piracy and terrorism.

The US is one of the few countries where adults can walk into a gun store and legally buy an assault weapon of any kind, including high-powered rifles. However, not all states allow the guns to be carried in public (called Open Carry) though almost all allow “Concealed Carry” whereby the weapon has to be hidden from private view.

America’s somewhat liberal gun laws are derived from the Second Amendment of the US Constitution which enshrines the right to bear arms (“A well regulated Militia, being necessary for the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”). In fact, US residents own around 395 million guns, which actually exceeds the number of guns owned by many other countries’ Armed Forces combined, and in fact, the population of the US itself.

The world is watching with interest the debate in the US about gun control. Many attempts in that direction have been thwarted by the gun lobby led by the National Rifle Association (NRA), though its power is waning in the wake of financial and other scandals. Even though the motives and reasons of the two gunmen (only one of who is still alive) may vary (the investigation is still on), there is no doubt that they have been able to get their hands on these weapons rather easily. The US has been reeling in recent times from a series of deadly shootings. Thus there is a strong voice against the proliferation of guns in the USA and we might eventually see a restriction of access to guns and wider background checks, as seen in other countries. The US can also take a leaf out of countries such as New Zealand, which had relatively lax gun laws, but tightened them after a major crisis like this one. The Christchurch attack led to calls for gun control and the authorities responded swiftly. It is not surprising that most countries are now examining their gun laws after these tragic events.

There is some truth in the assertion that violent video games and mental illness can be factors in the rise of gun violence, but even those thus inspired will not be able to buy guns if restrictions on gun ownership are put in place. Indeed, gun violence is very low in countries such as Japan where video games including violent First Person Shooter (FPS) games are immensely popular but firearms are very difficult to come by.

But the US is not the only country that suffers from the proliferation of weapons among the civilian population. The trade in illicit small arms is one of the biggest problems in the modern world. And people are turning into a modern phenomenon for their illicit arms – the so-called Dark Web, where shady dealers offer the entire gamut of weapons for the right price. This is a no-questions asked way of buying high-powered weapons. There is evidence that some recent mass shootings have been committed with weapons procured in this manner.

There are an estimated 875 million small arms in circulation worldwide (among civilians), produced by more than 1,000 companies from nearly 100 countries, with an estimated annual authorized trade that exceeds US$ 8.5 billion. According to the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, more than three million small arms are exported annually. The sheer number of small arms in circulation poses a massive challenge to arms control efforts. This challenge is exacerbated by their shelf life; if properly maintained, small arms can operate for several decades and pass through many hands before the end of their lives.

The transition from the legal to the illegal realm can occur at any stage of a weapon’s life cycle: manufacture, first delivery, domestic or international transfer, possession, storage or final disposal. So irresponsible export practices are only one of the many ways small arms get into the black market. In fact, a significant number of legally acquired small arms enter the illegal trade through corruption, seizure, theft and loss.

The International Community has realised the need to prevent that from happening. A historic milestone was reached in April 2013 when, after almost a decade of negotiations, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a legally binding agreement that regulates the international trade in conventional arms of all types. The ATT has so far been signed by 116 countries.

In 2004, Sri Lanka established a National Commission Against the Proliferation of Illicit Small Arms (NCAPISA). This Commission monitored the proliferation of such arms in Sri Lanka and related matters. The Commission has taken steps to make a comprehensive assessment of the problem in the country, and to establish a national database on the civilian use of small arms and light weapons.

Sri Lanka does have a problem with illicit small arms, although it does not manufacture any Small Arms and Light Weapons. Thus all such weapons available in the country had been imported either legally or illegally. Sri Lanka’s underworld seems to be having access to a variety of weapons for their crime sprees. Soldiers who have deserted with their service weapons is another factor.

There is also the possibility that some of the weapons used by the LTTE may have since ended up in the wrong hands. Foreign registered weapons may have been brought here illegally, perhaps via the same methods used for drug smuggling. Drugs and gun running are anyway closely linked.

While Sri Lanka does not have gun stores and legal gun ownership is very tightly regulated, the lacunae in enforcement must be identified to prevent the spread of small arms among various groups. There must essentially be a bigger crackdown on underworld groups and their weapons procurement networks. While the recent Easter incidents did prompt the authorities to urge the public to hand over any unauthorized weapons to the nearest police station, it is time to have a proper census on the light weapons in circulation, both licensed and unlicensed.

It is also vital to keep hate and hatred in all forms out of the public discourse. As seen in many recent gun incidents around the world, hate seems to have literally triggered these guns. A more compassionate world is the need of the hour.