SAR Special Report: Global Small Arms Ban Discussed At Latest UN Meet

By Robert M. Hausman

The United Nations recently held the third of a series of four meetings on the subject of controlling the worldwide trade in small arms. Called the UN Regional Workshop on Firearm Regulation for the Purposes of Crime Prevention and Public Safety, the gathering was held in Sao Paulo, Brazil December 8-12.

The workshop series being held around the world are a component of a broader UN International Study on Firearm Regulation, the origin of which dates back to Resolution 9 of the Ninth UN Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders held in Cairo, Egypt in 1995.

Wendy Cukier, Canadian representative of the Friends World Committee on Consultation and the World Society of Victimology, summed up the main theme of the latest gathering when she stressed the need for “international standards and cooperation for controlling the gun trade and trafficking in firearms.”

The UN secretary-general was requested (by the UN’s Economic and Social Council) to include in the workshop’s agenda, the possible development of a UN Declaration of Principles including the following common elements: regulations relating to firearm safety and storage; penalties and/or administrative sanctions for offenses involving the misuse or unlawful possession of firearms; mitigation of, or exemption from, criminal responsibility, amnesty or similar programs individual member states determine to be appropriate to encourage citizens to surrender illegal, unsafe or unwanted firearms.

The Declaration also calls for the: implementation of national licensing systems, inter alia, including the licensing of firearms businesses, to ensure firearms are not distributed to persons convicted of serious crimes or other persons who are prohibited under the laws of the respective member states from owning or possessing firearms; a record-keeping system for firearms, inter alia, including a system for the commercial distribution of firearms and a requirement for appropriate marking of firearms at manufacture and at import, to assist criminal investigations, discourage theft and ensure firearms are distributed only to persons who may lawfully own or possess firearms under the laws of the respective member countries.

Participants at the workshop included upper level government and law enforcement officials holding a policy and/or decision-making position with regard to firearm regulation. as well as representatives from intergovernmental and non-governmental agencies.

Workshops’ Objectives

Among the objectives hoped to be accomplished at the workshops were: the establishment of cooperative agreements between member states to share information on tracing firearms; participants familiarization with relevant initiatives for firearm regulation at the regional and inter-regional levels; and, member states’ efforts on regulations regarding storage of firearms, sanctions for misuse of firearms, and gun record-keeping systems.

Non-governmental representatives (such as those from the American Shooting Sports Council and National Rifle Association) were excluded from certain workshop meetings where “sensitive law enforcement issues” were discussed. Topics covered in these sessions reportedly involved, “detection, investigation control, and prevention strategies employed by governments, to combat firearm related problems,” according to the UN.

One workshop focused on developing national and international arrangements in the control of legitimate movement of firearms, gun parts and ammunition. A regularly updated directory listing all manufacturers of firearms and firearm components was proposed. In addition, the development of international customs practices relating to the movement of firearms for civilian purposes, including the creation of a common import and export certificate, was proposed. An advance notification system, with a view to advising on the effectiveness of controls concerning the international movement of firearms, was considered.

Another workshop group discussed the possibility of housing a centralized data base for ballistics training to assist member states in obtaining timely information on the origin of seized firearms and firearm tracing capabilities.

British Anti’s

“The proliferation of light weapons, both in conflicts and civil society, is a pervasive and continuing problem,” stated Geraldine O’Callaghan, an analyst for the British American Security Council, an anti-gun research organization that analyses international security issues. “Firearms control is an integral part of international arms control. The US government’s laissez faire approach to the gun trade both within and beyond US borders has led to the influx of thousands of cheap Brazilian handguns and Chinese assault rifles and the export of US firearms to drug traffickers in regions of conflict. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to control the illicit international market in light weapons without also monitoring and controlling domestic access to weapons,” O’Callaghan said.

Author Hausman’s note: BASIC’s definition of “light weapons includes pistols, revolvers, and rifles, as well as heavier military weapons such as portable anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, machine guns, mortars up to 100mm, associated ammunition, and anti-personnel land mines.

O’Callaghan went on to call for controls not only on illicit transfers but also on licit transactions. Light weapon exports are not as stringently monitored as heavy weapon system exports she said, and stated that between 1989 and 1993, the Office of Defense Trade Controls at the US Department of State verified end-user certificates for only 21 out of 1,632 applications for small arms transfers to eight Latin American states.

Taking a cue from anti-gun politicians in the US as well as prior questionable actions of the US State Department, O’Callaghan recommended the promotion of international agreements to ban the manufacture, import, export, and possession of so-called “junk guns” (which she defined as handguns lacking essential safety features) and other “dangerous weapons” such as so-called “Saturday Night Specials” (which were defined as “non-sporting, low quality handguns”) and weapons deemed to be a particular public health risk such as armor piercing ammunition.

O’Callaghan encouraged consistency between domestic controls and export policies by saying, “A weapon deemed dangerous for import/manufacture/sale in one country should then, by definition, be banned for export.”

The US State Department, soon after passage of the 1994 Clinton domestic sales ban on so-called “assault weapons,” was contacting governments of foreign countries to which US manufacturers had applied for export licenses to ship the affected gun models to and tried to dissuade such foreign governments from allowing the importation of such firearms.

Ammo Bans

O’Callaghan also gave endorsement to a proposal first advanced at the UN by the government of Canada about a year ago, to limit ammunition supplies as a way of rendering firearms useless.

“Even if all transfers of light weapons were stopped today, the world would still be awash in them decades from now, because light weapons can last that long. Ammunition is unattractive for smuggling, since it has relatively high weight and relatively low dollar value. Reliable and safe ammunition is also difficult to produce and has a significantly shorter shelf-life then the weapons in which it is used. Limitations on ammunition supplies may be more feasible than limitations on the weapons themselves,” O’Callaghan said. She went on to call for a UN study on ammunition.

In addressing measures to improve the traceability of firearms, O’Callaghan mentioned Organization of American States (OAS) member countries have discussed the random insertion of microchips the size of a pinhead into arms at the point of manufacture to allow customs officials to scan weapons to ensure their numbers tallied with the import license. She also called for investigation into the tagging of ammunition to allow investigators to better trace it back to its source of manufacture.

Pro-Gun Groups

Representing the American firearms industry, Richard J. Feldman, (Executive Director of the American Shooting Sports Council ASSC) said the firearms industry would “embrace, support and contribute to legitimate efforts at disrupting the illegal trafficking and criminal misuse of firearms,” but that, “In its deliberations on this issue, the UN must be mindful of the uniqueness of the various individual states which would be affected by the policies being proposed. Matters of domestic concern in a particular member state should not be usurped by foreign dictates.

“Nowhere is this more apparent or applicable than in the US of A. where the overwhelming majority of its citizens hold firmly to the belief in their constitutional right to keep and bear arms. US citizens will not take kindly to international efforts to strip them of this symbol of freedom,” Feldman warned.

NRA statement

Concerns over the intent of the UN effort as well as the attempts to exclude opposing points of view from the proceedings were addressed by Thomas L. Mason, the representative of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action. NRA-ILA has obtained NGO status at the UN largely through the efforts of its chief lobbyist, Tanya Metaksa, “The clear intent of the chief promoters of this UN effort,” Mason declared, “is not to eradicate illicit conduct, but civilian gun ownership. Additionally, the manner by which contrary viewpoints have been systematically excluded from these proceedings is simply wrong.”

Mason also proposed a set of guidelines to be used in governing discussion of a declaration of principles: rejection of a “world” or “international” standard in firearms regulations; no establishment of a central registry of firearms or their owners; no surrendering of sovereign rights to enact laws related to illicit traffic in firearms; no evaluation of one nation by another on compliance with agreements; no establishment of a permanent entity to police compliance with agreements; and, no involvement with any international organization in policing or enforcing any possible agreement.

As part of a series of suggestions on how the UN can address relevant issues, such as firearms safety, Mason called on the workshop to endorse NRA’s Eddie eagle safety program and join in its promotion.


Driven by the efforts of such countries as Japan and Canada, the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and criminal Justice increasingly is focusing on international gun control proposals including those to ban the manufacture, international trade, and private civilian ownership of firearms.

The UN’s Economic and Social Council recently adopted resolution 1995/27, In section IV of that resolution, the Council requested the secretary-general to establish and maintain close cooperation with member states by exchanging data on the following topics related to firearms regulation:

- Criminal cases, accidents and suicides in which firearms are involved, including the number of such cases and the number of victims involved and the status of firearm regulation by law enforcement authorities.
- Updates on transnational illicit trafficking in firearms.
- National legislation and regulations relevant to firearm regulation.
- Initiatives for firearm regulation at the regional and inter-regional levels.

UN Study

Adding impetus to the UN’s global gun banning efforts are the result of a UN study released last spring which found the US is a leading source of firearms for international gun smugglers. The UN secretary-general’s report, “Measures to Regulate Firearms,” found the US is one of only three other countries which report frequent illegal exportation of firearms. The UN report also states, “Transnational illicit trafficking in firearms is a serious concern of (UN) member states, contributing to unacceptable levels of homicide, other violent crime, suicide and accidents involving the use of firearms, resulting in tragic harm to victims within the member states.”

In a telling revelation of its true purpose as an advocate of global gun control, the UN report stated bluntly, “The absence of effective firearms regulations in one member state can undermine not only the regulatory efforts but also the effective governance of other member states.” The government of Japan first advanced this view at the UN in 1994.

HCI View

Quick to seize upon opportunity, Sarah Brady, chair of Handgun Control, Inc. (HCI), issued a statement endorsing the UN global firearms ban agenda by calling for a national one-handgun-per-month law as well as national firearms owner licensing in the US.

“Step one is to pass national anti-gun-trafficking legislation which would limit handgun purchases to one-per-month-per-person. Gun traffickers rely on bulk purchases to ensure the cost-efficiency of their lethal trade,” Brady said.

“Secondly, we should follow the lead of the overwhelming majority of states responding to the UN study, which have licensing and registration requirements for gun purchases and laws regulating safe-storage of firearms. Licensing of handgun purchasers allows more thorough background checks to be conducted on gun buyers and would help expose gun traffickers by allowing for more accurate tracing of guns found at crime scenes.

“The American plague of gun violence is spreading to other countries, and the only way to contain it is to strengthen our gun laws immediately,” Brady declared while revealing she is in lockstep (or is it goose step?) with the governmental regimes of Canada, Japan, Columbia and Cuba, which have blamed private firearms ownership in the US, for their own countries crime problems.

No formal policy decisions were reached at the Brazilian meet. The fourth and final UN workshop on small arms issues will be held in New Delhi, India in early 1998

This article first appeared in Small Arms Review V1N7 (April 1998)
and was posted online on July 7, 2017


Comments have not been generated for this article.