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Mass Destruction in Small Packages

The most deadly weapons in the world today are legal, accessible and dirt cheap. And the United States is spreading them around the world.
 
 
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Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the specter of mobile chemical labs, dirty nuclear bombs, anthrax spores, sarin gas, and other weapons of mass destruction has fueled popular fears and inspired countless anti-terrorism initiatives.

While the fear of bombing and attacks is real, here is a surprising fact: The most deadly weapon in the world today is legal, accessible and dirt cheap.

The AK-47, the M-16 and other so-called "small arms" are responsible for the deaths of half a million people each year. About 300,000 people – mostly civilians – are killed in wars, coups d'etat and other armed conflicts each year by small arms. Another 200,000 people are killed each year in homicides, suicides, unintentional shootings and shootings by law enforcement officers using these weapons. In addition to those killed, an estimated 1.5 million people are wounded by small arms annually. If we take into account their cumulative impact, small arms are truly weapons of mass destruction.

These lethal weapons are cheap, portable and easily concealed, making them ideal weapons for terrorists. They are hard to destroy and so simple to operate that even an eight-year old can carry and use them.

In all, the global small arms stockpile is estimated at 639 million guns. Almost 60 percent of this arsenal is in the hands of civilians – over 377 million weapons. State-controlled military forces, police, insurgents and other militias own the remainder.

While small arms are deadly and dangerous, they are also profitable - which makes them difficult to regulate and control. According to data collected by the Small Arms Survey in Geneva, they account for more than $4 billion in profits each year. The United States has the dubious honor of being the largest exporter, with $741.4 million in sales in 2003, which accounts for 18 percent of the market. The U.S. also purchased $602.5 million in small arms and munitions in 2003, making it the largest importer of small arms, as well.

The failure of nations like the United States to curb the manufacture of these deadly weapons has a devastating impact on human rights, development and the war against terrorism.

In Iraq, for example, the ubiquitous presence of small arms has contributed to the marked increase in attacks on U.S. troops.

In a recent article in the New York Times, Evan Wright, the author of "Generation Kill," notes that at the time of the invasion:

Iraq had one of the largest conventional arms stockpiles in the world... include[ing] three million tons of bombs and bullets; millions of AK-47's and other rifles, rocket launchers and mortar tubes; and thousands of more sophisticated arms like ground-to-air missiles ... As war approached, Iraqi commanders ordered these mountains of munitions to be dispersed across the country in thousands of small caches.The Marine platoon Wright was embedded with was shocked at the sheer quantity of arms and ammunition littered across Iraq. But they were even more flabbergasted at the Pentagon's order forbidding them to stop and destroy the stockpiles in the rush to Baghdad. As a result, by the time the Marines reached the capital, these same weapons had become part of the Iraqi insurgents' arsenal.

The situation in Iraq is just one example of the dangers that result from underestimating the big problem of small arms.

In Afghanistan, continued violence and instability can – at least in part – be attributed to the concentration of small arms in the hands of warlords and the Mujahedeen. Many of these weapons were purchased with covert U.S. aid and given to anti-Communist fighters 25 years ago. The recent history of Afghanistan is a gruesome testimony to the durability of small arms and offers a powerful argument for their destruction as part of every peace agreement.

It's even more ironic to note that the proliferation of small arms is an integral part of the Bush administration's antiterrorism policies. As part of the war on terrorism, the United States has increased military aid in the form of small arms and training to countries like Uzbekistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. And far too often, these weapons have been turned against the civilian populations of those countries – used in human rights abuses, assassinations and state repression. Small arms also fuel civil wars in Africa and Latin America.

The "war on terrorism" should have stopped weapons from falling into the wrong hands, but as Amnesty International's report "Shattered Lives: The Case For Tough International Arms Control" finds, U.S. and other Western suppliers have gone in the other direction, relaxing arms controls "in order to arm new-found allies against terrorism, irrespective of their disregard for international human rights and humanitarian law." According to Amnesty International, the demand for weapons has risen since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The correlation between the proliferation of small arms and the proliferation of human rights abuses is stark and unmistakable.

This month, organizations from around the world are uniting under the umbrella of the International Action Network Against Small Arms to draw attention to human toll of small arms proliferation and misuse. Rather than handing out more guns in the name of fighting terrorism, the United States and other major powers need to put their citizens' security first.

Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate with the Arms Trade Resource Center, a project of the World Policy Institute . ATRC is a member of the International Action Network Against Small Arms .