This module is a resource for lecturers

Key issues

The key issues examined in this Module are:

Key to an effective firearms-related policy is the collective understanding of those who are tasked with implementing and creating policy, interpreting legislation and conducting investigations. A workable knowledge of firearms (small arms and light weapons - SALW), including parts and components, ammunition and lethality will provide practitioners with both a theoretical and contextual basis to address the issue of firearms.

The firearms are subject to regulation and control. They differ in terms of physical characteristics, level of dangerousness, use allowance (civilian, public services military etc.).

Proper firearms identification proved its importance in various domains. In firearms tracing it helps identification of diversion points and routes used in illicit trafficking and further in investigating such trafficking. Firearms classification is another domain of importance where the classification of firearms determines the conception of firearms specific legislation, rules and regulations. In particular cases the classification of an individual firearm will establish its legal situation and further on the legal actions taken in relation to possession or use of that firearm. Proper firearm identification has also a high importance during trials, where the prosecution has to prove if a weapon is an actual firearm, that is functioning and that belongs to a specific category.

Estimations point to approximately one billion firearms in global circulation as of 2017. 857 million (85 per cent) are in civilian hands, 133 million (13 per cent) are in military arsenals, and 23 million (2 per cent) are owned by law enforcement agencies', with most firearms (SALW) belonging to the private sector. (Small Arms Survey, 2018) According to the 2018 Small Arms Survey findings, there has been a steady increase in firearm ownership over the last ten years from 650 million in 2006 to 857 million in 2017.

Furthermore, trafficking in firearms (SALW), including ammunition and the diversion from legal to illicit use, can have far reaching consequences on both humanitarian and socio-economic grounds (see Module 1). In addition, firearms have contributed to 'estimated 46 per cent of all violent deaths in 2010-15 - resulting in an average of 214,000 deaths per year'. (Small Arms Survey, 2016)

A universally accepted definition and a unique term being used in relation to firearms, in theory, would provide governments and practitioners a standardized framework in which to operate.

As discussed in Module 1 two different terms emerged in the context of two parallel United Nations processes: 'firearms' and 'small arms'.

It can be roughly said that the term 'firearms' tends to be used in the context of crime, whereas SALW was used more in the context of armed conflict and disarmament, hinting to the fact that these were arms not commonly used by civilians. In practice, this distinction fails as firearms and small arms (SA) tend to overlap and even their typical scenario is not clearly defined any longer; firearms are used in armed conflict and more and more, and small arms or military style weapons are more often used in crime, in addition to the fact that, in some countries, several of these military style arms can be freely purchased and held by civilians, adding to the mixture between military and civilian components of firearms possession.

For the purpose of this Module, the term firearms will be used, and only when needed the term small arms will be reverted to.

Internationally, a generic classification was proposed and adopted in the text of the 1997 report by the United Nations Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms. Section III of the report, "Weapons in Use", created categories for "small arms" and "light weapons."

United Nations Panel Definitions:

' Small Arms: revolvers, and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, assault rifles*, sub-machine guns, and light machine guns.

Light Weapons: heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrelled and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-tank missiles and rocket systems and anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortar of less than 100mm calibre.' (United Nations General Assembly, 1997)

In practice, 'small arms' (firearms) are those that are specifically designed for personal use, carried by an individual. (United Nations General Assembly, 1997)

The term 'firearm' was further defined by The Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) to the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, creating a legally binding definition of the 'firearm' term as being

(a) 'any portable barrelled 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.'

The firearms definitions were further reiterated by the International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons, Small arms shall be '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. ' (UN A/60/88, 2005)

At national level, the definitions, although in variable and adapted wording, include the basic characteristics from the international instruments, respectively the shooting of a projectile through a barrel as a consequence of an explosion.

Next: Typology and classification of firearms
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