Global gun control: examining the consequences of competing international norms.

Author:Grillot, Suzette R.
Position::Essay
 
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The global spread and misuse of small arms is one of the most alarming and growing security issues of the post-Cold War era. For many reasons, however, controlling the spread of small arms is extremely difficult Nonetheless, given the serious nature of the small arms issue, numerous states, nongovernmental organizations, and individual activists have sought to address various small arms problems. One of the earliest suggestions that analysts and advocates offered was to develop international norms and standards of behavior that outline the parameters of acceptable small arms activities. Despite the numerous actions that states and NGOs have taken over the past ten years in an effort to combat these problems, corresponding norms are relatively weak or nonexistent. This article seeks to answer why this is the case. It examines why global small arms control norms are largely weak or nonexistent and explains why the prospects for stronger norms are few. Although research on norms in international relations is swelling with studies showing whether, how, and why norms emerge and affect state behavior, few studies focus on cases where norms actually do not emerge or influence action. The primary explanation for weak small arms norms is a competitive normative environment that is facilitated and perpetuated by: (1) competing coalitions that promote opposing norms and ideas and (2) a great-power consensus that works against stronger arms control norms. Keywords: small arms, light weapons, arms control, international norms, competing norms, armed violence, nongovernmental organizations, transnational advocacy networks, competing coalitions.

ONE OF THE GROWING AND MOST ALARMING SECURITY ISSUES OF THE POST-Cold War era is the massive proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. (1) Because light weapons are cheap, readily available, and easy to transport (and smuggle), they are the weapons of choice (or necessity) for many engaged in violent conflict. Small arms also play a significant role in terrorist and criminal activity. (2) Accordingly, the resultant human destruction has been astonishing. (3) Most experts agree that the large-scale spread and misuse of these weapons have victimized millions of people, largely in the developing world. Experts estimate that somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of all conflict-related deaths result from small arms. (4)

Moreover, the unchecked spread of these weapons, particularly in developing countries, brings with it destabilizing forces that contribute to a number of domestic and international problems. Easy access to small arms, for example, undermines human security by "creating and sustaining a culture of violence" whereby social interaction and cultural identities become entwined with the possession and use of weapons and the perpetuation of gun violence. (5) Extreme and excessive accumulation of small arms and light weapons prevents progress toward democratic reform and damages prospects for economic development in countries undergoing transition. (6) Finally, widespread availability of small arms prolongs wars and undercuts conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding within and among states. (7) Many argue, therefore, that the international community cannot ignore the impact of these weapons on the global security environment. It is imperative that we face and address the "severe and distinctive threats to international peace and stability engendered by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons." (8)

Controlling the spread of small arms and light weapons is, however, extremely difficult for a number of reasons. First, small arms are considered "legitimate" weapons that serve a variety of purposes such as policing, providing for the national defense, and sport shooting. It is not possible, therefore, to discuss a ban on these weapons--and their legal trade is difficult to limit given their legitimate uses. Second, these weapons are available in vast numbers. The Small Arms Survey estimates that there are approximately 875 million small arms available around the world--divided among militaries, police forces, militias, and civilians, among others. (9) Third, there are a large number of weapons producers around the world. More than 1,000 companies operating in approximately 100 states manufacture small arms and ammunition.10 Many, if not most, of these states are opposed to controlling the legal trade in small arms, although many are willing to engage in more stringent law enforcement practices to prevent illegal trafficking. The control of both legal and illegal trade, however, remains problematic as consistent data on small arms transfers are irregularly and often rarely reported." Finally, the difficulty in controlling the proliferation of small and light arms is compounded by the fact that these weapons are relatively small and portable. They are easy to conceal in shipments and are difficult to detect and confiscate. Therefore, even when some governments do attempt to slow or stop the proliferation of such weaponry, the obstacles are many.

Given the serious nature of the small armis issue, and despite its complexity, numerous states, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and individual activists have sought to address various small arms problems. Since the early to mid-1990s, a number of national, regional, and international efforts have emerged to address the problems associated with the unchecked spread, accumulation, and misuse of small arms and light weapons. A range of efforts include national weapons collection and destruction programs; arms transfer control measures; stockpile management and security programs; regional codes of conduct; arms moratoriums and conventions on arms trafficking; and international agreements on illicit transfers, arms brokering, and weapons marking and tracing. (12) Most efforts have focused on restraining the supply of small arms, but suggestions for demand-side initiatives have centered on disarming and reintegrating combatants in postconflict reconstruction situations, conflict resolution, development, and the enhancement of human security. (13)

One of the earliest suggestions that analysts and advocates offered regarding small arms control was to develop international norms and standards of behavior that outline the parameters of acceptable small arms activities. (14) Their argument was that normative prescriptions and proscriptions ultimately must underlie all measures to address small arms issues. However, despite the numerous actions taken by states and NGOs in an effort to combat small arms problems, corresponding norms are relatively weak or nonexistent. (15) Nearly all small arms agreements are based on political promises at best, suggesting only voluntary action. Basically, there have been many national, regional, and international small arms control conferences and activities over the past decade with rather weak and voluntary normative agreements as a result. Why?

In this article, I seek to answer this question. I examine why global small arms control norms are largely weak or nonexistent, and explain why the prospects for stronger norms are few. Although research on norms in international relations is swelling with studies showing whether, how, and why norms emerge and affect state behavior, few studies focus on cases where norms actually do not emerge or influence action. Denise Garcia's study of small arms norms offers the primary analysis in this area, but her study focuses strictly on factors such as the role of NGOs, norm entrepreneurs, and coalitions of like-minded states. (16) Moreover, Garcia tends to blame the weak institutionalization of small arms norms on the complexity and novelty of the small arms issue. (17) Little attention is given in her study to the issue of competing norms and ideas as a significant explanation for weak instruments and soft law. (18) I argue that the primary explanation for weak small arms norms is a competitive normative environment that is facilitated and perpetuated by: (1) competing coalitions that promote opposing norms and ideas and (2) a great-power consensus that works against stronger arms control norms.

I present this study in four sections. First, I review the role of norms in international relations and develop a framework for understanding normative weakness in the small arms area. Second, I discuss the global problems associated with the unchecked spread, availability, and circulation of small arms. Third, I outline the various small arms instruments that have been established and explore the competitive normative environment in the small arms area. Finally, I offer the study's findings, investigate various solutions, outline theoretical and practical implications, and make suggestions for future research.

The Global Small Arms Problem

It is apparent to many that the most significant feature of contemporary conflict is the almost exclusive presence and use of small arms and light weapons. (19) Although violent conflict today is largely characterized by intrastate, civil, and ethnic conflict, the weapons that support these wars are procured in an interstate and transnational manner. Firearms of all kinds flow legally and illegally into, out of, and through countries in all regions of the world. In fact, most small arms and light weapons begin their life cycle as legally produced, sold, and purchased weapons. (20) Ultimately, because these weapons are considered legitimate and useful for a multitude of purposes--national defense, self-defense, policing, and hunting, for example--small arms are quite easily and readily acquired and circulated in both legal and illegal markets.

Several features separate small arms from large weapons systems and help us understand why small arms are widely available and in high demand. Small arms are relatively inexpensive and accessible in large quantities all around the world. Numerous public...

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