A distinctive feature of firearms trafficking that distinguishes it from other illegal flows is its ubiquity and durability. Governments manufacture or import firearms for their military and law enforcement operations, as well as supply civilian demand of firearms for lawful purposes, such as hunting, recreation or personal protection; yet firearms are also used in armed confrontations and are by far the preferred weapon of choice in the commission of violent crimes and terrorism.
While the problem of illicitly trafficked and acquired firearms and their criminal use concerns a minority of arms when compared with the majority of arms that are legally produced, traded and acquired, the nature and impact of the problem is disproportionately high and common to nearly all States. However, the negative consequences of these firearms on peace, security and development are most likely felt by under-developed countries that lack sufficient resources, capacities and mechanisms to adequately respond to these threats. In these contexts, even small quantities of illicit firearms can have disruptive and destabilizing effects on citizen's security.
International and national responses to these problems include a wide array of regulatory and associated measures to enhance controls over firearms and prevent them from falling into the hands of criminals, but national implementation and effective international cooperation to counter the global threat often remain challenging. Nevertheless, not enough is known about the real extent and dimension of illicit firearms flows due, inter alia, to the widespread lack of reliable data and information from States on these firearms and the hidden nature of their illicit movements. More unbiased evidence-based research is needed to enhance the overall picture and develop understanding of this phenomenon at local, regional and especially global levels.
In the early 1990s, two different terms - 'firearms' and 'small arms and light weapons' - emerged in the context of two parallel United Nations processes. The first process had a focus on crime prevention and criminal justice and addressed, amongst others, the criminal use of firearms; the second process had a focus on armed conflicts and disarmament, particularly, among others, on military-held weapons, non-proliferation and armed violence prevention. For a long time, these two processes ran in parallel with related research, but from different perspectives: firstly, the crime prevention perspective, and secondly, the disarmament and armed conflict perspective. This was despite obvious conceptual and practical overlaps between the two (UNODC, 2015a).
Both processes led a decade later to the adoption of several international instruments by the United Nations General Assembly: the first process culminating in the adoption in December 2000 and May 2001 of the legally binding landmark Convention United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) and its three supplementary Protocols Thereto on Human Trafficking, Migrant Smuggling and Firearms respectively. The Convention and its first two protocols entered into force in 2003. The latter, the Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) was adopted in May 2001, and entered into force in 2005.
The second process on disarmament and non-proliferation, culminated shortly after (in July 2001) in the United Nations Programme of Action on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) as a global, non-binding instrument (Parker and Wilson, 2016). This was complemented in 2005 by another non-binding instrument, the International Tracing Instrument. Details of all these instruments and their relationships with one another can be found in Module 5.
The initially intended dichotomy between civilian and 'crime guns' on the one hand, and military arms and 'conflict guns' on the other, has in practice never been applied consistently; terms are often used interchangeably and synonymously.
The UNODC Firearms Module Series will use the term 'firearms' to refer indistinctly to both terms, and use the other terms only where the context or the referenced sources require the specific use of the term 'small arms' or 'small arms and light weapons'.
The Firearms Protocol provides a legal definition of firearm that is based on its technical features: its portability ( "any portable weapon") and its functioning mechanism ( "barrelled weapons ... designed ... to expel a shot ... by the action of an explosive"). The definition is technical and does not differentiate by categories or types of firearms, or by its legal users (for example, civilian or military arms), or by its intended use (for example, hunting, sport shooting, security or defence). As such, the definition is sufficiently large to apply to any type of firearm that fits the technical description contained in the definition. Module 2 provides an explanation of the importance and relevance of legal definitions and of a proper classification of firearms.
Article 3(a) Firearms Protocol
a) "Firearm" shall mean any portable barreled weapon that expels, is designed to expel or may be readily converted to expel a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique firearms or their replicas. Antique firearms and their replicas shall be defined in accordance with domestic law. In no case, however, shall antique firearms include firearms manufactured after 1899;
Source: Firearms Protocol, 55/255 (2001).
In contrast, there is no legal or universally accepted definition of a 'small arms and light weapons' (SALW). The term was initially designed to relate to arms used by armed forces, although in practice it tends to also include certain types of commercial arms.
The first and most authoritative definition was introduced in the 1997 report by the United Nations Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms (GGE) tasked with addressing the 'Types of Small Arms and Light Weapons Actually being Used in Conflicts' (United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), 1997). The GGE provided a list of different types of weapons, divided according to their portability: small arms that can be carried by one person, and light weapons that have to be carried by two or more people, a pack animal, or light vehicle:
"All arms that fire a projectile, while the condition that the unit or system may be carried by an individual, a smaller number of people, or transported by a pack animal or a light vehicle.
Small arms : revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles, sub-machine guns, light machine guns.
Light weapons : heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-tank missile and rocket systems and anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortars of less than 100 mm calibre."
Source: UNGA (1997a, para. 26 and 27(a))
The International Tracing Instrument (ITI), proposes an eclectic definition of small arms, as "any man-portable lethal weapon that expels or launches, is designed to expel or launch, or may be readily converted to expel or launch a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique small arms and light weapons or their replicas" (Paragraph 4, ITI).
In the absence of a legally agreed definition, efforts were made, especially by the research community, to enhance and further expand in particular the definition of light weapons. The purpose was to include in its list mortar systems up to 120 mm in caliber, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and improvised launchers for artillery rockets, and to reflect the notable increase in the use of IEDs worldwide, and the increased capacity to use artillery rockets and large-caliber mortars as portable light weapons (Small Arms Survey, Definitions, undated).
The definition of 'firearm' adopted by the Firearms Protocol overlaps greatly with that of 'small arms', and covers many 'light weapons', particularly barreled weapons such as heavy machine guns, which are too large to be transported and used by a single person (UNODC, 2015). As referred to by the UNODC (2015) and explained by the Small Arms Survey (Parker and Wilson, 2016), the differences between these two terms are not of great relevance and refer mostly to the functioning mechanism of the weapons (firearms require the action of an explosive to expel a shot, bullet or projectile whereas SALW expel or launch, and thus include arms that use self-propelled projectiles), their physical structure (a barreled weapon, thus excluding light weapons that use tubes or rails, such as man-portable air defence systems (MANPADS)), and the type of ammunition used (cartridge based ammunition). In practice, however, these technical differences are not so relevant and do not affect the use of terms proposed in these university modules.
Ammunition: Definitions of 'ammunition' also vary greatly but generally include the cartridges, missiles, rockets, shells, and other projectiles fired from small arms and light weapons. Hand grenades and landmines are often categorized as either 'light weapons' or 'ammunition', and explosives not incorporated into rounds of ammunition are often excluded altogether. The Firearms Protocol refers only to ammunition for firearms and defines them as " the complete round or its components, including cartridge cases, primers, propellant powder, bullets or projectiles, that are used in a firearm, provided that those components are themselves subject to authorization in the respective State Party" (UNODC, 2001, Article 3, subparagraph (c)).
Parts and components: The Firearms Protocol defines 'parts and components' as 'any element or replacement element specifically designed for a firearm and essential to its operation, including a barrel, frame or receiver, slide or cylinder, bolt or breech block, and any device designed or adapted to diminish the sound caused by firing a firearm' (UNODC, 2001, Article 3, subparagraph (b)). Other parts or components that are necessary for the basic intended use of firearms/small arms and light weapons, but which do not fall under the Protocol regime, include for example stocks, grips, hand guards, magazines, triggers, and trigger guards. Single parts of firearms may not only be illicitly be manufactured or trafficked, but also legally acquired (especially from countries that have looser control regimes for parts than for finished firearms) and used to illicitly assemble and create a fully functioning firearm. Controlling parts and components effectively is as important as firearms and ammunition, and thus having a clear understanding of which parts fall under a stiffer national control regime and which parts do not is therefore of great importance, as is also detecting possible loopholes across jurisdictions.
Accessories: These are items that increase the effectiveness or usefulness of firearms, but are not considered essential for their basic functioning. The term 'accessory' is not defined in the Protocol or other instruments, but refers in principle to items that although not essential to the functioning and intended use of the weapon, are physically attached to a weapon to increase its effectiveness and usefulness. Examples of key accessories include weapon sights, laser range-finders, fire-control systems, and aiming lasers. (UNODC, 2015)
Because of conflicts and political unrest, there are millions of firearms in circulation across the globe, which are transferred through legal and illicit markets. Every day, thousands of arms, their parts and components, accessories and ammunitions, are produced and sold, exported or imported on the global market for a variety of reasons, mostly related to security (the need of firearms for police, military, private security entities, personal security) or for recreational use (hunting, sports, collections). Yet, firearms also play a leading role in the generation of armed violence, crime and insecurity, and as lucrative income-generating commodities to finance other illicit activities. Comparatively cheap, widely available, extremely lethal, simple to use, durable, portable and concealable, firearms are among the most wanted black-market commodities in the world.
Firearms are responsible for a large number of casualties every year in armed conflicts and, in larger part, in non-conflict events. In its Global Firearms Programme, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime ( UNODC, 2019a) notes that:
No region in the world is exempt from the dramatic consequences of the violence associated with these weapons. While the death toll in the context of armed conflicts is well known, less evident but even more dramatic, is the fact that more lives are lost worldwide from non-conflict firearm events than do during ongoing wars. The problems associated with firearms violence covers the whole spectrum of human security: ranging from high levels of individual physical insecurity (domestic violence, and street, gang and criminal violence) with serious economic and social consequences for the society at large, to large scale armed conflicts in which these arms enable widespread violence and account for the majority of deaths. (UNODC, 2019a: 1)
Controlling the illicit firearms flows to prevent their theft, loss, diversion, trafficking and use is very difficult. Modules 3 and 4 provide more insights into the dynamics of the global legal and illicit arms market and how arms move from the first to the latter.
How big is this market? Can we quantify the number of firearms that are in circulation worldwide?
It is in fact very difficult to estimate the 'global inventory' of firearms, as publicly available data on producers - including the type, quantity and value of their products - and owners is often scattered, incomplete or non-existent. Often, the information and data on existing military stocks, legal production, imports and exports, as well as on law enforcement-held firearms are classified and not shared publicly by States. In addition, the data on civilian ownership is often scattered and incomplete.
In 2007, the Small Arms Survey published its first ever estimate of global arms ownership, accounting for a total of 875 million firearms, the vast majority of which were held by civilians, including gangs and criminal groups (approximately 650 million or 74%). Less than a quarter (approximately 200 million) were held by the military, and about 26 million (3%) by law enforcement (Karp, 2007). In the forthcoming decade, and in the absence of any better data, these figures became almost official estimates cited and referenced repeatedly by scholars, policymakers and practitioners. In 2018, the Small Arms Survey revised and updated its figures and published a new report ( 2018 report), which brought the overall estimation to 1.013 billion firearms in circulation (see Figure 1.1). This new estimate represents an overall increase of 15.7% compared to the previous numbers.
Much of this increase is attributable to a growth of 32% in the estimated civilian-held firearms total (857 million, or 84.6%). The new figures also point to a decrease in military-held firearms to 133 million (-13.1%), as well as in firearms held by law enforcement agencies (23 million, or 2.2%). The report further suggests that a significant number of these civilian-held arms are in the hands of gangs and non-State armed groups (Karp, 2018a, b and c).
The overall sum of firearms grows continuously as both licit and illicit weapons enter the market. As firearms remain functional for many decades, the production continues to add new firearms to those already in use. Recent evidence from Europe ( Duquet, 2018) demonstrates that far fewer firearms are being seized than are entering illicit markets, and therefore estimating the true numbers of firearms is a continuing difficulty for researchers and practitioners in the field.
A way of estimating the number of arms in circulation globally is to analyse the annual production by looking at the producers. According to the Small Arms Survey, there are approximately over 1,000 companies in the world located in a hundred of countries. These produce and assemble at least one type of firearm, and about 60 countries in the world have the capacity to produce light weapons and their components. Of these, a dozen countries are thought to have the capacity to produce advanced light weapons. In the region of 80 countries have the capacity to produce ammunition. With an annual production of firearms estimated around 700,000-900,000, procurement analysis suggests that the world production of military assault rifles, carbines, pistols, and light and heavy machine guns would range between 36 million and 46 million units (Karp, 2018c).
Table 1.1 lists estimated global production of two of the most widely deployed military rifle types of the 20th Century. These figures reveal a total combined production of between 47 million and 112 million rifles. Clearly, making accurate estimates therefore is very difficult. However, given the long lifetime of a firearm, it can be assumed that most of these weapons are still in service or stockpiled.
Industrial production: The global market for firearms and ammunition is supplied mostly by formally licensed industrial production in factories, with artisanal or 'craft' production in workshops accounting for a smaller and less well-understood proportion (UNODC, 2015a). These firearms producers range from large multinational corporations that manufacture a wide array of civilian and military products, to small niche companies or individuals that only produce a particular type of weapon or component. Research findings reveal that industrial production accounts for about 95% of the world production, and craft production for 5% (Bermann, 2011).
As can be seen later in Table 1.2, most of the top producing countries are also among the major arms exporting countries. Several other countries have a significant industrial capacity, but mostly meet the needs of the domestic market. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), through its arms production project, monitors, describes and analyses trends and developments in arms production worldwide. As part of this work, SIPRI publishes and maintains the SIPRI Arms Industry Database, which gives information on the top 100 producers from 2002 to 2017 in the world.
Artisanal or craft production: Craft production refers to arms and ammunition manufactured in small quantities in an artisanal manner. The crafted firearms can range from tightly regulated, high quality products manufactured by licensed artisans (e.g. production of expensive replicas of antique firearms) to craft-produced firearms under little or no state control (Berman, 2011). The quality of these arms can vary considerably, from crude, improvised, single-shot guns to semi-professionally manufactured copies of conventional arms (Hays and Jenzen-Jones, 2018).
Several countries in the world have long-standing traditions of artisanal production that is either lightly regulated or simply tolerated by local governments. The practice is widespread among several West African countries, where the production of artisanal firearms can reach a considerable proportion and relatively good levels of quality and sophistication. One such example is Ghana, where some gunsmiths are reported to be able to produce assault rifles (Berman, 2011). It is a prerogative of each State to determine the type of production and under what circumstances and conditions that production is legal. The Firearms Protocol, for example, requires State Parties under Articles 3 and 5, to license or authorize firearms manufacturing, and to make any unauthorized manufacturing a criminal offence. For its transposition, it remains the State's responsibility to identify the producers and establish the conditions for authorization and licensing of production, or take criminal legal action against it.
In contrast, rudimentary or craft arms are defined by the UNODC (2015a) Firearms Study as 'artisanal, or home-made firearms or any firearm that was assembled with parts and components manufactured for another utility or belonging to other firearms.' These types of arms are not considered legal.
Unlike licensed artisanal production, these rudimentary (or improvised craft) arms are manufactured in workshops by artisans and usually lack the required standards of quality and reliability. The most common craft firearms are simple, single shot handguns or shotguns, often improvised from common materials such as pipe and springs. Many simple craft firearms need to be manually re-loaded after every shot. Some are designed to be fired only once and discarded. Others are made in semi-professional workshops and appear superficially identical to fully-automatic military weapons (UNODC, 2015a).
Rudimentary types of arms are often found among criminal groups outside conflict zones that cannot access or afford to acquire regular, industrially produced arms, especially in developing regions (Hays and Jenzen-Jones, 2018). Several Latin American countries have been reported to have seized a relatively significant amount of such rudimentary-type arms from criminal groups (UNODC, 2015a). Recent research has shown that strict legislation mostly in developed countries, and limited access to industrially-produced arms mostly in developing countries, are among the major drivers for the development and use of improvised or craft-produced arms (Hays and Jenzen-Jones 2018).
Another relevant issue is the use of rudimentary modified, converted or reactivated firearms. The use of converted and reactivated firearms in terrorist attacks in Europe is an example of how improvised firearms represent an alternative when access to industrially-produced firearms is limited. The study "From legal to lethal - Converted firearms in Europe" released by the Small Arms Survey in 2018 confirms that firearms conversion has become a serious issue in Europe.
Another method of estimating the dimension of the global market is to monitor its authorized trade, notwithstanding the fact that several arms producing countries may not export but mostly supply their local market only. These internally produced arms are not accounted for in a global market estimation solely based on international trade information.
The United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade), a repository of official trade statistics established to promote greater transparency in global trade, collects customs data as reported by States. However, as only a minority of States submits regular data on transactions through this means, these figures reflect only a portion of the global trade and require additional and supplementary sources and analysis in order to provide a more comprehensive picture.
One of these additional sources is provided by the work of the Norwegian Peace and Research Institute (PRIO) , through its Norwegian Initiative on Small Arms Transfers (NISAT) . This organization collects and analyses over several years a variety of data based on UN Comtrade and other import or export data with a view to monitoring the extent of the legal trade globally. In 2009, PRIO launched a multi-year research project aimed at assessing the documented and undocumented trade. The study estimated the total amount of authorized trade for the period 2009-2012 at about 8.5 billion US dollars per year. This was almost twice the value reported in the UN Comtrade in 2011 (Grybowski, Marsh and Schroeder, 2012). In 2018, another academic study was published based also on NISAT and UN Comtrade data, which concluded that the international small arms trade was estimated to be worth at least 6 billion US dollars in 2014 alone. The same study considered that ammunition accounted for 38 per cent of global transfers ( Holtom and Pavesi, 2018).
The same study identified the following major exporting and importing countries for the same period:
As can be seen, some countries appear as both major exporting and importing countries, which shows that the global trade is not one-way, but varies in complexity according to the market fluctuations of supply and demand.
How do firearms become illicit? Most firearms start their journey as legally produced firearms and so it is important to understand the methods and means by which they exit their legal life and enter the illicit realm, and identify the specific risk factors that exist in every stage or moment of their life cycle.
In order to detect, prevent and eliminate the theft, loss or diversion of these firearms, countries must put in place a series of preventive and security measures. The Firearms Protocol, for example, requires State Parties to take appropriate measures to increase the security of these arms at the time of their manufacture, import, export or transit, and increase the effectiveness of transit of their transfer controls, including border control and customs trans-border cooperation (Article 11, Firearms Protocol).
Moreover, taking into account the high risks of diversion at the time of transfers, the Protocol also requires State Parties to establish or maintain "an effective system of export and import licensing or authorization", as well as "measures on international transit, for the transfer of firearms, their parts and components, and ammunition" (Article 10, Firearms Protocol), and to establish as a criminal offence the illicit trafficking of firearms, their parts and components, and ammunition 'without authorization' by a competent authority , or involving 'firearms without the required marking' (Article 3). Thus, according to the Protocol, all firearms transfers without proper authorization, or in violation of the marking requirements, shall be considered illicit and be criminalized as illicit trafficking under national law.
The dividing line between legal and illicit transfers is not always easy to establish in practice, and depends, amongst others, on the national legal frameworks of all States involved in the transfer (see Modules 3 and 4). There are generally considered to be three types, or stages, of transfer referred to by the Small Arms Survey (2001) as the 'Legality Spectrum':
Legal or authorized transfers: refer in general to all international transfers that are authorized by the importing, exporting, or transit states, and in accordance with both national and international law.
Illicit grey-market transfers: involve some elements of an authorized transfer while other aspects may be illicit; for example, when a transfer is authorized by either the importer or exporter but not both. Grey transfers are also considered such when governments or their agents, for example, exploit loopholes or circumvent national and/or international laws or policy.
Illegal black-market transfers: are all those transfers in clear violation of national and/or international laws, and without official government consent or control. These transfers may involve corrupt government officials acting on their own for personal gain. They include cases of diversion and illicit cross-border trafficking.
Not all authorized transfers are automatically legal, as some authorized transfers could be in violation of international law (e.g. transfers to a State under arms embargo) (UNODC, 2015a). Some illicit transfers, for example, can have been approved for shipment by government officials based on fraudulent declarations and documentation regarding export and shipment, or where the shipment was diverted to an illegal end-user while en-route to the authorized recipient.
Whilst the clear majority of transfers are legal - 80-90% (Parker, 2011), there are also illicit transfers, either through the grey market as defined above, or else through the black market where there is a clear violation of international laws. Despite being a small percentage of the global trade, the illicit market is associated with more consequential damage in terms of harm, and various methods of transfer through this market have been identified.
As further explored in Module 4, there are different types and modalities through which a weapon can enter the illicit market, but in principle, most of these can be grouped in two main categories: illicit manufacturing and diversion. Within these two, it is possible to distinguish different types of sources, which include amongst others:
For the purpose of this Module, it suffices to address only the two major categories of illicit manufacturing and diversion, while Module 4 will go more in depth into the different sub-categories and sources.
A weapon can enter the illicit market already at the production stage through illicit manufacturing. As described earlier, most craft-produced firearms are unauthorized and thus enter directly into the black market, although a minority of artisanal arms is legally produced. Such arms represent, numerically speaking, a very small portion of the overall illegal firearms in circulation.
Firearms can also be illicitly produced from licitly or illicitly acquired parts and components. This phenomenon adds the specific sub-market of firearms parts to the global illicit proliferation of firearms. In addition, firearms that do not bear their unique marking are considered illicit.
The Firearms Protocol defines illicit manufacturing as: "the manufacturing or assembly of firearms, their parts and components or ammunition: (i) From parts and components illicitly trafficked; (ii) Without a license or authorization from a competent authority of the State Party where the manufacture or assembly takes place; or (iii) Without marking the firearms at the time of manufacture, in accordance with article 8 of this Protocol" (Article 3, Firearms Protocol).
In line with the above, it can be argued that firearms illicitly modified to increase performance, converted or reactivated fall under the category of illicit manufacturing as defined in the Firearms Protocol since the process of their transformation is most likely to have been carried out without a legal licence, or authorization from a competent authority.
'Diversion' is the term used for the movement - physical, administrative or otherwise - of a firearm from the legal to the illicit realm (UNODC, 2015a). Whilst not necessarily requiring the physical cross-border movement of weapons, this form of illicit trafficking often originates from an authorized arms transfer that somehow 'goes wrong'.
There are many ways in which firearms can get diverted: they can be diverted during shipment from one location to another, for example where forged documentation is used to facilitate the transfer of such arms to a destination not authorized by the exporting government. Arms being stored can be diverted, for example through pilfering of weapons located in a depot. The illicit cross border firearms trafficking, or diversion, can be facilitated by illicit brokers or dealers who arrange the necessary elements of an illicit shipment. Firearms that are legally owned may lose that status if the owner loses their licence or fails to keep them registered (UNODC, unpublished).
There are major differences in the size and complexity of different forms and instances of illicit trafficking. Criminological research has found that an important source of illicit firearms trafficking occurs on a small scale and involves unsophisticated methods, such as a few handguns being transported over a border concealed in clothing, in luggage or in the means of transport; the so-called ant-trade. Frequent small-scale trafficking can collectively move massive quantities of firearms and ammunition over time and have a strong impact on security. Examples include firearms trafficking between the Mexican and US borders, or from the Western Balkans into Europe. In other cases, illicit traffickers are organized for large scale shipments of arms, measured in hundreds of tons or more, that circumvent numerous national law enforcement agencies. Such large illicit shipments are often associated with supplies to parties involved in armed conflict or shipments to embargoed destinations (UNODC, unpublished).
Diversion can thus occur at all points of the life cycle of a firearm, posing various challenges in terms of their control. One documented phenomenon is stockpile diversion, either from civilian or national (i.e. government) stockpiles. Figure 1.2 below illustrates the diverse types of stockpiles and their affiliated types of diversion.
A special kind of weapons diversion is that of catastrophic loss, which is associated with major collapse of authority, especially state collapse (Bevan, 2008). It differs in scale and speed, involving loss of control of hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of weapons, typically much or all of a State or armed group's holdings, lost within days or weeks. Such events tend to be transformative, exacerbating armed conflict. One example often used is the events that affected Libya following the fall of the Gadaffi regime in 2011 when thousands of weapons fell into the hands of non-State armed groups and traffickers.