Reducing SALW Fatalities
Mar 15, 2010

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In 2007, a team composed of one Canadian, one Dutch, one Brit, and two Germans spent several months in aggregate, training South Sudanese on SALW (Small Arms and Light Weapons) issues. In Juba, the capital, they trained members of South Sudan’s parliament and a mix of community leaders and youth workers (mostly illiterate) in small villages surrounded by brush. At different times they also trained military officers, police, journalists, teachers, and churchmen. German development workers and UN diplomats were also trained during the same timeframe. During the process, some team members were flooded out; fleeing SPLA soldiers stampeded through some camps; generators ran out of fuel. This mix of people and environment is by no means extraordinary: other individuals and teams from many countries do the same continuously. It does, however, illustrate the complexity of attempting to reduce SALW fatalities and damage through training, and the fact that, notably in developing and post-conflict countries, the issues of SALW affects everyone.
While not attempting to address the entire spectrum of arguments concerning Small Arms and Light Weapons here, I do want to focus on two issues: why training people to control SALW is a good idea, and the practical difficulties implied. It will be necessary to avoid the extremes to which both the gun-lobby and the anti-gun lobbies subscribe. Perhaps in an ideal world, guns might be harmless and fully ­controlled or completely destroyed. Given they are likely here to stay, the trick is to learn to control the menace they represent – which can differ greatly, depending on the setting.
One thing we do not know about the presence of SALW, is the total number worldwide. We do, however, know their deleterious effect in very specific circumstances of under-development and post-conflict. Therefore, the total number of SALW is a useful starting point.
Anti-gun campaigners often cite a statistic of 600 million small arms worldwide as the world’s SALW stockpile. This number is a fake. It was dreamed up as a compromise between experts (who were honest enough to admit they did not know) and diplomats who insisted, in 2000, on a determinable number. A quick calculation illustrates the difficulty. The world SALW stockpile = guns owned by government (usually security services) + guns owned legally by civilians (including private individuals, merchants and manufacturers stocks, and commercial security companies) + guns owned illegally – guns destroyed – guns lost or otherwise unaccounted for. We all know that governments lose track of their inventory and only have an approximate idea of what they own. All the other variables are as shaky, and some (such as illegal holdings and numbers unaccounted for) are by their very nature unknowable. The only thing we know for certain is that the number is very large (probably a minimum of three hundred million, though that is a guess as well, with an unknown maximum).
The effect of such a large number of weapons is extremely varied. Developed countries ­represent one extreme, and even among them, the situation varies. This includes countries such as Switzerland and Norway who, while their national stockpiles are extremely large per-capita, have relatively few problems and some basic regulations to manage them. Countries such as the UK, Canada, Japan, and Australia manage their civilian stockpiles by firm, even draconian laws that forbid many, sometimes most, types of civilian possession. Other countries, notably the U.S., South Africa and Brazil, tolerate high levels of gun violence in exchange for high gun possession in the civilian sector. What all of these countries have in common is the existence of a robust economy, a comprehensive and implemented legal and policing system, and a populace that has political, economic, and social alternatives.
Individuals in these countries don’t feel obliged to own arms because, by-and-large, the police, courts, and jails function effectively. In this situation, a few armed individuals are not likely able to destabilize the entire country, or even a community to any great degree.


Few in the small arms control community are concerned with this group of nations – mostly because there is another group in which the presence of SALW constitutes a clear and evident menace to the body politic, to the economy, and to the national potential. These  are the post-conflict, failed-state, and developing nations; and they represent the other extreme, the one most international SALW control efforts are focused on.

Kofi Anan, former Secretary General of the United Nations has called SALW ‘weapons of mass destruction’ on the basis of the number of deaths and injuries they cause on a yearly basis. This is of course hyperbole, and deserves to be treated with the contempt we reserve for most political bombast.
SALW constitute, to coin a term, ‘mass weapons of micro-destruction.’ Individually, there is a limit to the amount of damage any firearm can cause. Where the nation is a robust entity, the choice of how to control SALW is not a major issue. Where the nation is fragile, and life easily disrupted, there is strong evidence that a proliferation of light weapons are implicated in lowering GDP, educational standards, political stability and other developmental features. While one would argue, rightfully, that it is individuals who are responsible for these effects, not the instruments they use (in this case guns), the choice of instruments has a major effect. A small anecdote illustrates this difference.
A member of the team mentioned earlier arrived in a small town in Warab State, South Sudan, a few minutes after a burst of gunfire had been heard from the market. The town is populated by Dinka, an aggressive and distinct South Sudanese ethnic group. Within minutes, swarms of townspeople, men and women, armed with traditional ‘fishing spears’ were hurrying in the direction of the shots. The perpetrators were two drunk young soldiers who, while robbing a market woman, accidentally discharged an automatic rifle. The woman was injured, as was one of the two would-be robbers. The hapless robbers were rescued from being speared to death by their commander and a squad of other soldiers. Consider, however, the result of the townsmen having been armed with AKs (local automatic weapon of choice) and the same attitudes. Rather than multiple stab wounds, there would have been deaths. Considering the robbers’ friends were of a different ethnic group than the townspeople, a firefight would have been likely. Considering the quality of local firearm handling, no one in this town of thatched huts would have been safe. To drive the point home, it should be noted that some time later, a minor clash between the Dinka and another ethnic group in which both parties were armed with automatic weapons, resulted in over 100 dead.
Training Targets
The entire community of those engaged in training on SALW control is, in practice, minuscule. At a rough estimate, less than 10 such courses take place every year, training no more than 30 individuals each. Most courses (which usually take place in one of the fragile states described above) engage only four or five trainers. In practice, the community of SALW trainers is small enough that most know one another by name, often by sight.
The trainees, necessarily, represent a broad spectrum of national actors. In many cases those who would be in charge of a gun control policy have either never considered the issue to any great degree (guns are a feature of life), or, have not considered the details and implications of different forms of light arms control, nor the methods that can be employed. For example, few Ghanaian legislators (or readers of this article) are aware that Ghana is a major SALW manufacturer. ‘Craft manufacturing’ of accurate, reliable copies of famous pistols and shotguns are manufactured in small workshops throughout northern Ghana. Legislators (and police) need to understand the issues in order to balance depriving people of their (socially respectable, economically important and traditionally supported) livelihoods and stopping supplies of guns to criminals. Journalists too need training. Most report any automatic rifle with a banana-magazine as an ‘AK-47’, and few understand the complex links between different armed security actors, ranging from security service personnel, through armed citizens, to armed political groups and criminals.
Communities are often sufficiently trained to maintain their stockpiles. Simple devices (trigger guards) and procedures (“Don’t carry your firearm within the confines of the village”) are often sparked simply by trainers initiating discussions among community members themselves.
The security services too are not exempt. The state of the security-services’ stockpiles in fragile states can be horrifying. Unsorted ammunition rotting in piles, cocked rusted weapons, which no one has ever checked for the presence of a round in the breech, and lack of simple accounting procedures lead to safety concerns (and, indeed, to massive ammunition explosions) and security problems (military firearms leaking into the hands of armed groups, terrorists, and criminals). So among other trainees, one is often faced with those in nominal charge of military depots and stores, who need to be taught their craft.
Training Objectives
Ultimately, the objective of training is not to deprive people of guns. Sometimes they need them for their own safety, since those responsible for civilian safety – the police and judiciary – are either unable to offer security, or unwilling to do so.
SALW training world-wide aims at enabling individuals, communities, and states to make informed decisions about how to control all aspects of their national stockpiles in ways that suit them and to ensure as little damage from firearms as possible.
In practice, SALW training is restricted by three factors: the funds available (which are generally determined by an interested donor); demand from the government of a fragile state, one of its regions, or a local community; and the availability of trainers and training material. Given these three limitations, SALW control training varies immensely in scope, intention, and of course quality.
Perhaps the most important consideration is context. Attempts to stem the prevalence of guns internationally started in earnest in 2000, with a UN document ­entitled Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects (UN Document A/Conf.192/15), which laid down suggestions for agreed-upon national and international action. In part, it requests all signatories to provide information on their stockpiles and on capacity upgrading in the field of SALW control. While in some countries, notably the U.S., this has been interpreted as an unacceptable interference in the populace’s internal affairs, a number of other international actors, including Canada, the UK, and Germany, have contributed substantial sums to assisting fragile states develop their reporting capacity as well as their ability to control SALW.
SALW do not exist, even in fragile states, in a vacuum. More often than not, they are merely an aspect of poor governance, and notably, are related to two features of post-conflict states. On the one hand, the security services of fragile states are often out of control. Poorly trained, poorly paid, and poorly motivated, weapons are seen as a means for controlling the state (as the 2009 events in Guinea, for instance, demonstrate). The end result of such a military coup, which is often followed by a brutal civil war, is a need to thoroughly reform the security services, a process called SSR (Security Sector Reform) and to civilianize a mass of combatants, ranging from professional soldiers through guerilla groups, to armed community militias, a process known as DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration). The ability and skills to deal with SALW – collect, identify and register, store or destroy, design security and safety procedures – is a critical element of both these processes, and perhaps more than any other SALW control activity, shows immediate benefits.
Whatever the intentions, the ultimate question is whether all this activity, restricted or wide as it may be, has brought about any results. It is always difficult to assign cause and effect to such activities as education. We cannot, for example, ascribe lower light weapons use in a fragile state to training activities. Many other factors such as improvements in the economy, availability of jobs, and a better political climate play a (perhaps greater) role.
Two seeming successes can serve as examples: in the Balkans, and Cambodia. Throughout the former Yugoslavia, SEESAC (South Eastern and Eastern Europe Clearinghouse for the Control of Small Arms and Light Weapons) assisted in a series of campaigns to lower armed violence. One element of this campaign was a broadcast campaign to educate the populace about the risks of SALW, which was followed by a successful weapons collection campaign. It was a success in the sense that there was a visible abatement of violence and the use of small arms. Nevertheless, how much of this is owed to training and education of the populace, army, and politicians and how much to improved economic and political conditions, combined with aggressive policing, is hard to assess. In Cambodia training was aimed largely at elements of the armed forces. There too, an aggressive campaign to reduce small arms ownership, resource allocation (for instance, for the building of storehouses and ammunition depots) were combined with education, training of storehouse supervisors, and so on, to reduce, the number of small arms displayed and used, resulting in a major reduction in violence.
Perhaps the most critical basic problem in our ability to assess whether training on small arms for the general populace in fragile states has an effect, in and of itself, is the fact that donors very rarely are interested in allocating funds to assess the impact of such programs. Critically, therefore, while those involved in SALW control training feel intuitively that there is an effect, the effect is hard to identify or prove scientifically. From a scientific point of view this is more than unfortunate, as it limits the ability to fine-tune such activities in any more than the most general sense.
Given the rather vague results, why engage in SALW control training at all? Part of the reason is that the training targets need to be chosen selectively and with an eye to leverage. This is not always the case, since potential leverage is hard to assess. Training a legislator in a national parliament may engage his/her interest for a while, but whether this will push the SALW issue up the agenda depends on many things. At the communal level, we do see changes from time to time, ranging from self-initiated systems for controlling use and access to local firearms (without depriving individuals of their security) through local educational initiatives. Certainly one effect that is noticeable is the growing confidence, at the local level, of individuals and communities to control their own environment and reduce deadly violence. Providing communities with tools to do that – some modified from industry, some developed locally with trainer encouragement – provides some ­evidence of effect, as well as a great deal of satisfaction. Local governments, which are concerned with immediate and concrete issues (which includes elected local officials, county commissioners and their equivalents installed by a central government, traditional chiefs, and so on), are the most anxious to develop ways to control SALW, and often do so effectively once they receive an initial push and encouragement. Central government politicians handle things at a different pace, though we have seen major changes in legislation and enforcement (Cambodia is an example). Assuming that the awareness and skills brought about by training is the root cause for the change would be unlikely.
In countries with a robust economy, political system and society, the international SALW control community is not terribly concerned with whether citizens have guns or not. Citizens of developed states are free to assume any risk related to gun possession they care to, so long as they are aware of the potential price to pay. Comparing the U.S. and Canada exemplify this issue: U.S. citizens insist (some more vehemently than others) on their right to bear arms. The price is what (to them) is acceptable in terms of higher rates of gun crime and accidents. Neighbouring Canadians, on the other hand, have given up on some of the right to bear arms, allowing inspection of their private stockpiles, stiff storage rules, and a list of forbidden firearms, and benefit in return from a lower rate of gun crime and firearm accidents.
If, in contrast, you live in a fragile state, with all that implies (poverty, poor governance, insecurity, fragmentation), guns will be a major problem:

  • In the hands of civilians they constitute an instrument that is likely to cause deaths and injuries from accidental or deliberate misuse.
  • In the absence of mechanisms for mediating conflicts (courts, national cohesion between ethnic groups) and reasonably impartial and reliable law enforcement, guns will be quickly resorted to in many quarrels.
  • Guns will be a constant attraction for unscrupulous politicians, who will find excuses to mobilize armed citizens to their cause when they find the results of political decisions not to their liking. Armed gangs with dubious political agendas will be a feature in your community.
  • The security services (police et al.) are as likely to use their firearms to repress or rob you, as to defend you, your property, and your rights. 

In fragile states, where security is not ensured by the state, taking away civilian weapons may simply expose those same civilians to predation by others. Paradoxically, unlike in developed states (where citizens are more likely to protest by voting, talking, and non-violent protests), confiscating civilian arms in fragile states is often the worse way to control them, since small arms are easy to replace across porous ­borders and from security service stocks, but hardened attitudes against official actions are difficult to change.
The corollary is that controlling the negative effects of small arms requires that many parties – the legislative and judicial systems, the security services, the media, educational systems, and the citizen in the street – be involved in informed decision-making on how to control light weapons as a national consensus.
This in turn indicates that the major thrust of all SALW training is, and needs to be, assisting actors in fragile states achieve some form of generalized consensus about controlling small arms and light weapons in their environment as one element in ensuring that people have a chance at development. Whether this actually reduces the risks of SALW over the long term, is yet to be proven.

Michael Ashkenazi (Ph.D Yale, 1983) has conducted fieldwork in Japan, Israel, China, East Timor, Korea, Sudan, Ghana, Canada and Uganda. He has published scholarly articles, popular articles, and scholarly books on a wide variety of subjects ranging through anthropological methodology, SALW, ritualized violence, food culture, business culture, SALW and DD&R.
© FrontLine Defence 2010