mitigating small arms flows: thematic lessons from the international scene

Last Friday’s shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, CT, has sparked a recognizable groundswell of public support for renewed gun violence prevention efforts. This process should be familiar to atrocity prevention advocates who, in the aftermath of mass violence in Rwanda, Syria, or Sudan, look to the mantra of “never again” as a source of moral urgency. In Sandy Hook’s wake, both gun safety, historically a priority for the National Rifle Association and affiliated “pro-gun” groups, and gun control have returned to the fore of the public agenda. As Sarah Kendzior has observed, calls for a “national conversation” about gun violence, cultures of violence, and mental health abound.

Since Sandy Hook, gun control advocates have informed the national gun control conversation through comparative perspective: the United States possesses more firearms than any other country in our income bracket, and more firearms per capita than the rest of the world, including a smattering of active war zones. Austria and Australia‘s violence prevention case studies have circulated widely, as advocates assess the institutional, legal, and social prerequisites for mitigating gun violence. These case studies are theoretically useful–comparable levels of economic development, institutional strength, and criminal violence should yield comparable conclusions on gun violence prevention. Beyond the two case studies, however, empirical indicators of gun violence reduction are surprisingly scant.

In the context of our comparative lens, the national conversation on gun violence is asking the wrong questions. Rather than viewing U.S. firearms policy through the narrow lens of gun control and access, U.S. commentators should frame gun violence as a question of domestic and transnational small arms flows. The Second Amendment and its cultural importance reframe the public conversation: nowhere else, and particularly not in post-conflict environments, is small arms proliferation considered a preferable social outcome. Small arms flows precipitate varied forms of mass violence, often in environments where social, economic, and political grievances already exist. Far from the exception, the United States conforms to the rule: a recent study of criminal violence on the U.S. Mexico border found that lax gun regulations in U.S. border states exacerbated violence in conflict-affected regions of Mexico, which I’ve previously discussed as an under-emphasized mass atrocity case study. As cross-border violence makes clear, our domestic policy failures reverberate abroad, often in destructive ways.

Within this “small arms flows” perspective, counterproliferation efforts offer a couple of broad, thematic lessons for domestic gun violence conversations:

Institutions matter: With heavy focus on international small arms technology, it’s easy to lose sight of a key component of counterproliferation efforts: the regulatory institutions that guide them. Post-conflict small arms proliferation creates a vicious cycle, in which the availability of small arms erodes the rule of law, a necessary prerequisite for counterproliferation. Legal institutions are one part of the equation; training and expertise, key characteristics of an effective regulatory body, are the other.

It’s not just about the guns: Ammunition represents a technologically trickier, if equally critical component of the small arms question. International regulations have identified illicit ammunition trafficking as a key target, as small arms ammunition stockpiles often enable opportunities for resurgent violence. International donors have emphasized stockpile destruction as a primary mechanism for ammunition reduction, focusing anti-personnel mine and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPAD) ammunition, in particular.

International cooperation makes a difference: The UN arms trade treaty isn’t just about regulating and mitigating the international flow of small arms. Like all international agreements, the arms trade treaty will develop an institutionalized regime, which would facilitate a community of practice on small arms counterproliferation. Despite our endemic gun violence, the United States has competently addressed the flow of illicit arms within our borders; most arms purchases are legal, if poorly regulated transactions. International counterproliferation efforts have relied heavily on regional cooperation, especially, and the U.S. is well-poised to contribute to a renewed international conversation on arms trafficking.

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