The place of small arms: integrating supply and demand perspectives

Currently, the news grabbing the headlines speak of a fear instilled by the possibility of nuclear proliferation (SBS: 2006) that vastly surpasses any indignation towards the concrete and persistent numbers of Small Arms and Light Weapons (SALW) victims.
My argument is divided in two. Firstly, most literature analysed can be boxed into two approaches: one with a starting point on the problems of SALW supply mechanisms; and another handling the socio-political dynamics stimulating demand for SALW. Secondly, a more complete picture of the phenomena demands more interactions between these two types.
I also divided the text into two sections: one reviewing a recent PRIO/Norwegian Church Aid (NCA) report on SALW called “Who takes the bullet?” (Jackson et al.: 2006); and a second placing this article in the wider debate of macro political economy.

Decomposing SALW – the case for a holistic approach

The report “Who takes the bullet?” (Jackson et al.: 2005), put together by four PRIO researchers, is a policy-oriented document underpinned by solid academic work. Evidence of this can be seen on the lists of bullet point and recommendations demonstrating not only intense research but also a will towards pro-active change in specific topic areas where SALW play a striking role (namely their effects on vulnerable groups such as internally displaced persons and refugees). The case-by-case approach brings the issues to life, making them very touching and real, like in the case of child soldiers in DR Congo and girl soldiers in Colombia (Jackson et al.: 2005 32). This aroused my curiosity of knowing who the targets and the true impacts of the publication were, considering it does not make use of a strictly academic style both in visual terms (vast collection of striking ambience images) and language (simple and hard-punchy). The fact that it is a NCA funded project is therefore relevant when putting the authors’ arguments in context. NCA as an NGO, has as target “consumers” not just “hard-core” academics but also the general public, making the visual and easy-read attractiveness of the piece an important component. Across the report, the notion that SALW are “multipliers of violence” is present but not prominent. The idea of seeing them as multipliers points to the perspective that SALW cut across both the developing and the developed world and that arms do not have a “mind of their own”. The notion also points to a pre-existing quotient of violence facing new challenges due to greater increases in SALW. Considering this, I believe that the suggestiveness of the title (“Who takes the bullet?”) together with an uncritical reading of the numbers and of the stories of the report can lead some to believe that small arms directly cause conflict. This is not the case and the authors obviously do not defend this. However, as a researcher in the field of conflict studies, I believe we must be very careful with looking at a single dimension of the conflict (even if just apparently) as an independent variable. The style of writing is relevant. For example, arms per se do not “exacerbate water stress problems” (Jackson: 2005 37) as the authors appear to claim. It is my impression that, after illustratively claiming in the introduction that “a gun in Rio is likely to have greater impact than one in Oslo” (Jackson: 2005 10), they put aside this idea without much further allusion throughout the rest of the text, except perhaps for one small box describing how counter-intuitive the Tanzania case is (with low levels of violence together with high levels of gun ownership and poverty) (Jackson: 2005 20). For example, simply looking at the number of SALW existing in a place is insufficient since sometimes inequality and highly visible structural violence can be more likely to cause casualties than places suffering of general poverty (Moser: 2006 90). Closer reading also made me realise that a few simple yet important facts about small arms seem to have been omitted in the text. Although these are indirectly present in the drama unfolding in some of the case-studies, there is no direct allusion to some important indirect economic and psychological effects of increases in SALW casualties and injuries. The text discusses the problems of education, water, transportation and also references the cost of firearms violence in the US ($100 billion)(Jackson: 2006 48) but leaves out for example, economic factors such as lost days of work and the psychological burdens that SALW victims suffer from. I recognize that the list of consequences of SALW supply is immense but these popped to mind as also very important.
Because it is more informative than analytical, the report is better seen in perspective and if integrated with other approaches in a holistic way. Personally, I found the section on the supply chain as the most captivating (and perhaps analytical). The report is very good at showing how easy the process of diverting SALW into the illicit trade is. In this sense it can also be interesting to ask what is that separates the licit from the illicit trade? Can trade in SALW ever be legitimate if not legal? Why is it that because it is a government purchasing the weapons this is more likely to be seen as legal? This is particularly relevant in a world where it is now recognized that the nation-state as an entity is a shadow of what Westphalia proposed it to be, a world where borders are less resilient and where actors and challenges increasingly cut across them. Theories of failed states, state formation and decertification (Herbst: 2004) pop to mind and it could be interesting to analyse SALW through these perspectives. To underpin this call for a systematic holistic view I think it can be useful to look at what I saw as an insightful piece, combining ’objective’ outsiders and ‘subjective’ insiders”: Moser’s (2006) study looking at the social, political and psychological processes of war. In a nutshell, he looks at the demand side for SALW. It is also interesting to note that the spread of small arms does not seem to be referenced as a “causal factor underlying violence” in Colombia in the diagrams drawn by the three different groups (shoemakers, young men and the mixed sex group) taking part in the project (Moser: 2006). However, the case for the acclaimed “holistic” approach must take precedence. As mentioned, a few important aspects of the phenomena of small arms appear to have been left out of the report, perhaps because of format and communication reasons. It is from its very arms centric approach that the PRIO/NCA report draws its strengths but also its weaknesses.

Small arms at a macro-scale

The observation that there has increasingly been a “blurriness of military and humanitarian operations” (Jackson: 2005 37) dragged my thoughts towards two discussions: the debates over whether aid can ever be apolitical; and to how aid and humanitarianism have been used as symbolic and psychological tools (even “weapons”) in the modern efforts of war, namely in the wars carried out by states of the “West” - the phenomenon recognized in the text as the “militarisation of aid” (Jackson: 2005 38). In respect to the apparent “shift in focus from threats to the state (…) to threats to the individual” (Jackson: 2005 10) there immediately came to my mind Mary Kaldor’s book on New Wars (2001). In effect, the threat to human security put forward by small arms trade can be seen as a dimension thriving in a wider trend of increasing transnationalism and presence of informal networks in conflict. In terms of the macro relations of states and the spread of small arms Khakee et al. article (2006) assessing the levels of transparency and accountability also contributes to a more complete picture. In its extensive statistical report, the conclusion stands out as particularly interesting. Their metaphor of an “uphill battle” is justified if you look at how “young” the UN program of action on small arms is and to the wide range of problems still present – states remain lacking on substantial transparency in: the intended end-users of small arms; government-sourced transactions; entities that are denied licences as well as those who get a license approval (Khakee: 2006 80). Combining these findings with James Lebovic´s report on democracies and transparency (2006) provides a truly intriguing overall picture. Lebovic uses a cross-sectional time-series logit model trying to find out the correlation between the levels of democratization and country participation in the UN register for small arms. The results are substantial findings pointing to a situation where democracy positively correlates with higher levels of transparency and consistency in the reports, “democracies appear to release information routinely on arms transfer that non-democracies consistently withhold” (Lebovic: 2006 559). The reasons for this occurrence are, however, cleverly questioned by the same author. He asks to what extent is this caused by greater capacity by democratic states to release the data or if it is actually the case that mature democracies, because they tend to belong to the developed “west”, can both “afford” to release the results and even use them as proactive (realist) reaffirmation of their relative power vis-à-vis other nation-states? It appears to me though, that even if the hypothesis for democratizations and transparency seems statistically correct, the overall picture put together by the country reports remains poor and the true substance of the commercial networks of SALW remains inside a ‘black box’.


Overall, the PRIO/NCA report focused on the impacts of SALW and on what to do to curb the supply side of small arms. It does play its role in sensitizing and drawing attention to a very serious problem and puts across rather well its proposal for research to “mainstream small arms violence” (Jackson:2005 57). My point is that the readings present us with what are essentially very different starting points converging towards the same objective. While Jackson et al., Lebovic and Khakee adopt as central in their analysis the supply side problems of SALW, Moser’s piece focuses (albeit indirectly) on the demand side for small arms. At the end of the day, these kinds of approaches can complement each other rather well in terms of painting a clearer picture of what are the dialectical dynamics between specific social, political and psychological processes of violence and the existing macro political economy structure supplying SALW. For example, if it is true that vast statistical exercises looking at the UN register can be used as possible pillars underpinning democratic peace theory, fact remains that the politics and narratives of what trade relations in small arms truly signify remains obscure. Studies like these need to be effectively complemented by analysis of the SALW narratives and environments at a smaller scale such as those described in Moser’s (2006) work.


Chabal, P. & Daloz, J. 1999 “Crime and enrichment. The profits of violence” in Africa works. Disorder as political instrument. Oxford and Bloomington: Indiana University Press
Herbst, J. 2004. “Let them fail”, in Rotberg, R. (ed.) When states fail: Causes and Consequences. Princeton University Press (302-318)
Jackson, T. ;Marsh, N.; Owen, T. & Thurin, A. 2005 “Who takes the bullet?- The impact of small arms violence” Oslo: Norwegian Church Aid
Kaldor, M. 2001 New Wars and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era Oxford: Polity
Khakee, A.; Dreyfus, P.; Klatz, A. 2006 “An uphill battle. Understanding small arms transfers”, in Small Arms Survey 2006: Unfinished business Oxford: Oxford University Press
Lebovic, J. 2006 “Democracies and Transparency: Country reports to the UN register of Conventional Arms” in Journal of Peace Research 43(5): 543-562
Moser, C. & Mcilwaine, C. 2006 “Latin American urban violence as development concern: towards a framework for violence reduction” in World Development 34(1): 89-112
SBS (Special Broadcasting Service) 2006. “Rice Tempers arms race fears” 18 October.

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