An epidemic of guns.

Author:Renner, Michael
Position:Proliferation of guns in civilian societies - Includes related article on arms manufacturers' new target market

The world is being flooded by small arms, many of them left over from past wars. But as wars end, the deadly work of guns isn't going away. Killing more people than all the tanks, missiles, bombs, and fighter planes on Earth, these easy-to-buy, easy-to-hide weapons are proliferating in civilian societies.

In the years before its fall from power in 1994, South Africa's ruling regime stirred up rebel insurrections in neighboring countries from Mozambique to Angola, supplying a flood of small arms to these countries to stifle regional opposition to apartheid. The onset of South Africa's democratically elected government put an end to these regional campaigns of destabilization. And since that time, President Nelson Mandela has remade his nation - once a global outcast - into an international beacon of hope.

And yet, despite the country's transformation, South Africa has not reaped peace. In the 1990s the country has experienced a nearly seamless transition from politically motivated violence to criminal violence. Political conflict in the waning years of apartheid in 1990 to 1993 claimed some 10,000 lives. But as this kind of violence ground to a halt, criminal violence swelled to replace it. For example, recent clashes between competing taxi owners have escalated into "taxi wars," in which some company owners have employed hit men to kill the passengers and drivers of their rivals. Firearms, including military weapons such as the AK-47 and G-3 assault rifles, are increasingly used in robberies and other crimes. The number of homicides committed with guns reached about 11,000 last year - the highest rate in the world of any country not at war, equal to 26 slayings per 100,000 inhabitants.

This wave of criminal violence is fueled by high unemployment, severe social and economic inequalities, and endemic poverty. And underpinning these problems is a culture of violence that has emerged from decades of brutal political struggle between the apartheid regime's death squads and fierce anti-apartheid operations.

The escalation of violence today has been made possible by the massive availability of deadly weapons dispersed during the past political turmoil. In a population of 45 million, there may be as many as 17 million firearms of military and civilian caliber: government security forces have access to about 5 million firearms, private citizens legally hold another 4 million, and illegal ownership is estimated to be between 5 and 8 million. South Africa is so flooded with small arms, writes Jacklyn Cock of the University of Witwatersrand, that "light weapons have become a form of currency." A portion of the assault rifles and other firearms used in the civil wars in neighboring countries - some of them supplied by the old apartheid regime - are now resurfacing in South Africa, hitting the country like a boomerang that was tossed and forgotten.

"The level of violent crime linked to this proliferation [of arms] threatens the consolidation of democracy" in post-apartheid South Africa, says Cock. And South Africa's dilemma is being replayed all throughout the world today. As wars come to a stop, the destructive force of firearms doesn't simply disappear, but in many cases actually proliferates. Small arms are moving beyond the military arena and are infecting countries and communities with rising levels of violence. And South Africa's continuing convulsion is only one example of the violence that takes place where unresolved societal problems mix with the massive proliferation of so-called "small arms and light weapons."


The term "warfare" still evokes images of tank armies massed against each other, as in World War II, or jet fighters launching "smart" missiles, as in the Persian Gulf War. But the vast majority of armed clashes are not battles between sophisticated armies from opposing countries. Instead, most wars nowadays take place within countries where there are no delineated battlefields, the weapons are usually low-tech small arms, and there is little, if any, distinction between combatants and civilians.

The growing number and accessibility of small arms has changed the face of war today. A total of 101 conflicts raged between 1989 and 1996, reports the Uppsala Conflict Data Project in Sweden. Of these, 95 were internal. That count includes only conflicts involving government forces at least on one side. If the definition of armed conflicts is broadened to reflect today's circumstances, the numbers are much higher: the PIOOM Foundation in The Netherlands estimates the number of "low-intensity" conflicts in recent years has increased sharply, from 106 in 1993 to 161 in 1997. Small arms are clearly the weapons of choice in today's wars; they are responsible for as many as 90 percent of the deaths in conflicts since 1989.

The proliferation of small arms also threatens to erase the distinction between wartime and peacetime. The end of a war no longer guarantees that "the guns fall silent." While conflicts end and armies demobilize, the destructive force of small arms often persists. Some weapons remain in the possession of ex-combatants or civilians that may have been armed during a civil war; others are stolen and fed into the burgeoning black market. Whatever the path taken, large quantities of these weapons end up in the hands of a variety of groups eager to use them on or off the battlefield. In El Salvador, for example, up to 300,000 military weapons remained in civilian hands after the end of the civil war. In Mozambique, millions of weapons remain unaccounted for. In both countries, crime and violence are rampant.

Possession of a variety of small arms - predominantly pistols, rifles, and machine guns - has become widespread in many societies. Firearms filter far beyond armies and police forces into the hands of organized crime, separatists and other armed opposition groups, drug traffickers, terrorists, private security forces, paramilitary groups, and vigilante squads. To the...

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