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Firearms trafficking

Regulatory framework

The problem of arms trafficking is multidimensional. Firearms are manufactured and traded both licitly and illicitly thus making the identification and tracing of illegally manufactured and trafficked firearms very complex. Further complicating matters, most firearms are produced legally and then diverted into the illicit market. Notably, illicit arms are present in most forms of violent crimes and increase the power of organized criminal groups. For this and other reasons, they are worth exploring in more detail.

A variety of international and regional instruments form part of the legal regime on firearms. The Organized Crime Convention is among the most significant global efforts to tackle firearms trafficking. One of the three supplementing Protocols to this Convention is the Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunitions (Firearms Protocol). It addresses the issue of illicit manufacturing and trafficking of firearms from the criminal justice angle and it was the first legally binding instrument on small arms adopted at the global level. It was developed with a view to providing measures to address the transnational nature of the phenomenon and its links to organized crime. The Firearms Protocol contains a definition of firearms in article 3.

Definition of firearms in article 3 of the Firearms Protocol

For the purpose of this Protocol:

a) "Firearm" shall mean 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 Protocol, which requires a separate ratification, entered into force in 2005. It is a significant step forward in attempting to control the world's illicit marketplace in weaponry. As it is obvious that no firearm, whatever its purpose, can function without ammunition, the Firearms Protocol also covers the criminalization of the illicit manufacturing and trafficking in ammunitions, as well as in firearms' parts and components.

The Firearms Protocol aims "to promote, facilitate and strengthen cooperation among States Parties in order to prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition" (article 2, Firearms Protocol). The Protocol has a number of major features, which are binding on State parties. In particular, it requires them to:

  • Criminalize the illicitly manufacturing and trafficking of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition, and falsifying or illicitly obliterating, removing or altering the markings on firearms.
  • Mark firearms for purposes of their effective tracing and identification.
  • Keep systematic records of information on firearms and international transactions in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition for tracing purposes.
  • Mandate by law the confiscation of illicitly manufactured or trafficked firearms, their parts and components and ammunition after which the firearms should be ideally destroyed unless another disposal has been officially authorized.
  • Keep documentation and licensing of all international transactions and brokers (please, see box below) and marking of all imported firearms and government firearms turned to civilian use.

Brokers in firearms trafficking

In the context of firearms trafficking, the person or entity acting as an intermediary, bringing together relevant parties and arranging or facilitating a potential transaction in return for financial or other benefit is referred to as a "broker". Some brokers have even been known to do business and sell weapons to both sides of the same conflict.

  • Render permanently inoperable all deactivated firearms.
  • Share information such as organized criminal groups suspected of involvement in firearms trafficking.
  • Identify a national body or a single point of contact to act as liaison between the country and other States Parties on matters relating to the Protocol.

State parties to the Firearms Protocol undertake to exchange relevant case-specific information and cooperate extensively at the bilateral, regional and international levels, including by providing training and technical assistance to other parties.

Other international and regional instruments, although covering similar topics, address the issue from a disarmament, trade or development perspective, and focus more on measures to reduce the accumulation, proliferation, diversion and misuse of firearms, than to bring offenders to justice. These elements reflect substantively different although complementary approaches to the same problem.

Another important international instrument in this field is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which entered into force in December 2014. The ATT is of broader scope and covers eight categories of arms, whereas the Firearms Protocol only covers firearms, their parts and components and ammunitions. In particular, the ATT applies to "all conventional arms within the following categories: (a) battle tanks; (b) armoured combat vehicles; (c) large- calibre artillery systems; (d) combat aircraft; (e) attack helicopters; (f) warships; (g) missiles and missile launchers; and (h) small arms and light weapons" (article 2, Arms Trade Treaty).

Both instruments promote international cooperation to tackle the challenges posed by the illicit trafficking of weapons. The Firearms Protocol pursue this through promoting cooperation to combat and prevent transnational organized crime more effectively, while the ATT is more generally refers to international humanitarian law, the reduction in armaments, as well as human rights considerations (UNODC, 2016).

Market and trends

Similarly to other illicit products and services, new sales channels (e.g., the Internet and its encrypted networks) are increasingly being used to traffic firearms. Organized criminal groups take advantage of new technologies, while also continuing to use old channels and known markets. As an example, police reports recently found that some organized criminal groups have been using parcel services to smuggle firearms into countries, often by sending their parts and components separately because they are harder to detect.

The trafficking of firearms is different from most other forms of organized crime activity in that it is a durable, rather than a consumable, good. Consequently, the global turnover in the licit and illicit arms industry is limited and trafficking tends to be episodic, generally from an established stockpile to a region descending into crisis. Many of the weapons available illicitly stem from the end of the Cold War and the unloading of no-longer-needed weaponry, which became available to former government officials, criminals, and, in some cases, the highest bidder. The result of this switch from government manufacture and ownership, to private manufacture and ownership of arms and weaponry is that war, civil conflict, and violence are now easier to wage than ever before. Another worrisome consideration relates to the current size of the illicit arms industry, since there are more handguns, AK-47s, missile launders, grenades, mines, and nuclear components available illicitly than ever before.

Arm dealers: the case of Viktor Bout

Viktor Bout, the reputed Russian arms dealer, was finally caught in a sting operation in 2008 after being at large for many years. He made his profits primarily buying unused Russian military weapons and equipment and selling them to both governments and insurgent groups primarily in Africa and Asia. Bout was the inspiration for the book Merchant of Death and the movie Lord of War. Some of these insurgent groups and governments did not have the cash to pay for the weaponry, so they paid in other natural resources, such as diamonds (in the case of Africa). This resulted in the term "conflict diamonds", where precious stones from otherwise poor countries were mined and sold for weapons purchases in order to fund conflict and civil wars.

The production of small arms and light weapons, designed for use by one or a small number of individuals, is estimated in the millions of units per year. Most of these are commercial firearms (handguns, rifles, and automatic weapons) made and purchased in the major manufacturing markets. There is also a number of small producers, located in many different countries, who make variations of well-known and highly desired weapons, such as AK-47 type automatic rifles (commonly known as Kalashnikovs).

The availability of these weapons is aggravated by a surplus of expertise. There is a number of private military contractors and mercenaries that are most often former soldiers for armies that no longer exist, or which can no longer pay them. Therefore, their expertise is used to train weapon purchasers in their use and deployment. The result is that many of these weapons land in the hands of trained insurgents, organized criminal groups, terrorist who are waging conflict in various locations around the world. (Coates and Pearson-Merkowitz, 2017; Naim, 2006; Salton, 2013)

As for the geographical distribution, according to the Small Arms Survey - an independent research project located at Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva, Switzerland -, more than one-third of the global supply of small arms is located in the United States. (Small Arms Survey, 2015) The same Survey shows that well over 200 million small arms are owned by US citizens - nearly one gun per person - and far more than any other single country or world region. Some of these guns are bought legally in the United States and then smuggled abroad to Mexico and other countries, aggravating problems of violence there. To find out more about firearms markets and legal framework, please see the UNODC Teaching Module Series on Firearms.

Challenges and opportunities

The current problem of firearms trafficking can be summarized as follows: what can be done to reduce the steady supply of overstock and low-cost weapons, which is difficult to control and is supplying an increasingly well-armed group of insurgents, private groups, and free agents? A multinational solution is clearly needed, as national borders often benefit weapons dealers and straw purchasers, in that they shop for countries with the fewest restrictions. Also, national borders limit the reach and action of law enforcement agencies, while international cooperation requires both time and willing partners.

The effort of the United Nations to regulate the illicit market in the trafficking of firearms looks primarily to controlling supply. Nonetheless, efforts to reduce the supply of firearms are hampered by the large number of weapons already in circulation, which often outlive their owners and existing armed conflicts, only to be sold again. The transnational sale of weapons is a threat to both unstable regions and any other country where the weapons might land undetected. The destruction of weapon stockpiles once intended for military use is therefore crucial to reduce the supply of weapons available for sale to unscrupulous buyers and sellers.

Firearms trafficking and the SDGs

Considering the threat posed by firearms trafficking to the stability and development of nations, Sustainable development Goal (SDG) 16, dedicated to the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, explicitly refers to the importance of reducing significantly arms flows by 2030 (SDG 16.4). Given the concealed nature of the illicit arms trade, measuring the reduction in illicit arms flows is no easy task. In order to establish measuring criteria, the UN Statistical Commission agreed on an indicator for Target 16.4 - Indicator 16.4.2 - that focuses on seized weapons (UN Statistical Commission, 2016). Therefore, the international community recognized the importance of monitoring illicit arm flows and in particular, collecting standardized data and information on seized, found and surrendered arms.

A UNODC survey of 40 countries discovered needed changes in the areas of reporting of firearms seizures, firearms tracing, and local firearms trafficking problems. In addition, training and other capacity building are needed in strengthening data collection efforts, and providing regular opportunities for the sharing of information, data and good practices in reducing the illicit trafficking in firearms (UNODC, 2015).

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