NRA: the global arms trade’s best friend

AK-47s kill more in a year than nuclear weapons have in all of history. But NRA lobbying against the Arms Trade Treaty helps keep the pipeline of death flowing.

by David Lambert

CATEGORY: GunsIn the isolated northeastern corner of the Democratic Republic of the Congo sits a small town called Dungu. Not too far away from the borders of South Sudan and the Central African Republic, Dungu is in one of the poorest, most volatile regions in the world. A few years ago, the Lords Resistance Army (LRA), a psychopathic band of predatory rebels notorious for kidnaping children, began regularly tormenting villagers, prompting the international humanitarian community to take a fleeting interest in Dungu.

But the residents of Dungu are tragically familiar with this sort of thing. Even before the LRA moved into the neighborhood, a particularly high number of child soldiers, under the command of feuding warlords in constant, slow burning conflict, lived throughout the area. And despite Dungo’s poverty and isolation, the children are well-armed. According to Passy Amedi, an aid worker in Goma, the provincial capital, “No humanitarian organizations are able to reach Dungu. Shipments of food and medicine have stopped. But arms arrive easily…new grenades and AK-47’s, they come all the time. Who is giving these kids guns?”

Passy’s rhetorical question is a good one. Small arms like AK-47s and other low-tech, light, and inexpensive weapons flow freely to far-flung corners of the world otherwise cut off from international trade. This is made possible through networks of war profiteers, from billion dollar corporations to seedy arms dealers, each ensuring that the world’s most instable, violent places remain that way.

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The first written account of the arms trade dates back to 431BC in Thucydides’ The Peloponnesian War, in which arms transfers were strategically used to achieve various economic, political, and military objectives. But it wasn’t until the start of the 20th century that the trade began to resemble what it is today. Like other entrepreneurs, arms dealers embraced the new technologies and open borders that came to define the era.

One of the most well known was a man named Basil Zahroff, or as the media labeled him, “the Merchant of Death.” A native of Greece born in 1851, Zaharoff began his lucrative career by selling hunting rifles and cheap military equipment to warring West African tribes, boasting that, “I made my first hundreds gun-running for savages. I made wars so that I could sell arms to both sides.”

It did not take the Zahroffs of the world long to discover that the real prize lay closer to home. Like today, it was governments that were the biggest spenders when it came to weapons. Arms dealers took to bribing public officials to secure lucrative contracts while encouraging media outlets to stoke the flames of nationalism that were kindling across the continents. World War I, a conflict without any obvious purpose, begot by nations eager for a fight, was the result.

After the conflict, a disillusioned public turned its anger toward those responsible for leading the world to war. Instead of being viewed as simple businessmen, arms dealers were now seen as villains content to let the world burn in pursuit of profit.

As a result, weapon industries became nationalized with governments at the helm. But rather than a reduction in stockpiles, the shift transformed the arms trade from a private enterprise into a tool of diplomacy and geopolitics. Weapons manufacturers, once apolitical private enterprises, suddenly became intimately involved in the foreign policy agenda of their host country. Today we call this the military industrial complex.

During the Cold War, the U.S. and U.S.S.R outsourced most of their fighting by arming proxy forces instead of risking outright confrontation. To pay for their bloated militaries, the two nations began selling arms to allied governments for financial as well as political considerations. In essence, the state assumed the role of men like Zahroff. Over the course of the Cold War, arms transfers for government profit slowly increased, peaking in 1982 when sales reached $45 billion.

With the fall of the U.S.S.R in 1990, military personnel in former Soviet states found themselves in charge of massive weapon caches and bound by little oversight. The sudden emergence of turbocharged capitalism and pervasive corruption sparked a wholesale rush to sell off state owned goods. Shady middlemen, acting as modern-day Zahroffs, were back in business after being sidelined seven decades.

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Carl Clausewitz, the Prussian general and military theorist, described war as “an expression of politics by other means.” What Clausewitz had in mind, however, was quite different than the conflicts plaguing fragile states today. Criminal gangs, not professional militaries, do most of the fighting. Greed is the motivating ideology. And anarchy is the permanent condition, as warlords have little motive to establish peace, or even claim victory, as it may spell an end to their wartime fiefdoms.

Weapons requiring heavy manufacturing and high maintenance are out of favor. Instead, today’s “soldiers” value cheap, accessible, durable, and lightweight weapons, the paradigm of which is the AK-47, a device so simple a child could use it—which they do—and has killed an estimated 250,000 people a year since its creation in 1943 (by comparison, nuclear weapons are responsible for a total of 199,000 deaths). There are an estimated 500 million of these small arms and light weapons—“SAWLs”—in use today.

They circulate the world through cabals of corrupt military officials, politicians, militant leaders, brokers, bankers, shippers, and a myriad of other opportunists eager to siphon off a share of the billions of dollars in revenue the trade generates. Other black market commodities like drugs, ivory, and conflict minerals, are all closely tied to the trade, smuggled in and out of conflict zones illegally. It is estimated that the arms trade is responsible for 40 percent of corruption in world trade, simultaneously undermining democracy and accountability.

Though the arms trade is a shadowy enterprise, almost every firearm on the black market was manufactured legally, sanctioned and supported by government policies. Over 1,200 companies operating across 90 countries are currently producing small arms, generating more than 7.5 million each year. There are an estimated 500 million in circulation today—or one for every 12 people on the planet.

Supply has outpaced demand. In some places, AK-47s sell for less than $12 dollars. And where the state is weak or non-existent, unable to enforce the rule of law, there are plenty of customers. A vicious cycle is therefore formed: unregulated arms flood into weak states, empowering criminal gangs and insurgent groups, which in turn sows lawlessness and violence, further weakening state structures and increasing the demand for weapons.

In places like Brazil’s favelas, weapons have ingrained poverty by deteriorating social services and allowing illicit activities to hamper legitimate economic growth, creating mobs of young males who see arms as a means of production, often their only means of production. Guns become a status symbol, not just a means of surviving but also a mark of social standing, power, and masculinity.

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What will it take to end the trade? Current efforts focus on embargoes, ending the legal import of weapons into volatile areas. The only problem is they don’t work very well. Amnesty International found that the arms trade in the war-torn Great Lakes Region of Central Africa continued unabated after an embargo was put into place. In Liberia, the United Nations discovered 68 tons of weapons shipped into the country in 1999 alone, despite an embargo. Like the drug trade and most other illicit activities, prohibition is difficult to enforce.

But unlike drugs, the mass manufacturing of guns is legal, and occurs within developed countries. The arms are then shipped to a location not under embargo before disappearing into the black market and smuggled into conflict zones. Regulations limiting manufacturing and cross border trade are desperately needed. Unfortunately, governments have been sluggish. As Oxfam has noted, there are more international laws regulating bananas than governing guns.

A step in the right direction is the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a United Nations’ proposal to assert some sanity over the trade by creating stricter standards for all cross-border transfers of weapons. As Reuters described it, the treaty “would create binding requirements for states to review cross-border contracts to ensure that weapons will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, violations of humanitarian law or organized crime.”

To date, 67 states have ratified the treaty. One conspicuous absence, however, is the United States, which accounts for more than 40 percent of global transfers in conventional arms. To the surprise of no one, the National Rifle Association (NRA), perhaps the most powerful lobbying group in the U.S., has used its clout to block ratification of the treaty.

Though the treaty would not affect U.S. gun owners, this has not stopped the NRA from mongering unsubstantiated conspiracy theories about the U.N. trying to destroy the Second Amendment, asserting “There can be no question that what is taking shape at the U.N. is an all-out attack on the constitutional freedom of American gun owners.”

This is shamefully disingenuous, even by NRA standards. The organization knows that the treaty is not about Americans’ right to bear arms. But that isn’t what the NRA cares about. Rather, it exists solely to increase the profits of gun manufactures. As former Ambassador Dan Simpson wrote for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, what the NRA “wants is not to preserve Americans’ Second Amendment rights. What it wants is to increase sales of guns.” Americans are increasingly put at risk by cowardly politicians too afraid to stand up against the gun industry. And now, the worlds most destitute people living in a nightmare of violence will continue to suffer because of the gun lobby’s influence on foreign policy.

Voters and NRA members themselves, the ones who care about gun ownership instead of corporate profit, need to demand an end to the organizations callousness. But in the meantime, efforts to temper the demand for weapons could be as important as regulating the supply.

It is difficult to imagine how this is possible while state institutions remain fragile. Despite its shortcomings, the rule of law, allotting a single neutral arbitrator to hold what scholars call a “monopoly on the legitimate use of violence,” is perhaps the greatest invention for peace in human history.

After catastrophes such as the World Wars, Vietnam War, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, one could be forgiven for thinking of states as the primary instigators of mass violence. Though it’s true that governments posses immense destructive power, it is also worth considering conditions in pre-state societies which, despite their popular image as harmonious, were staggeringly violent places.

The overall murder rate of pre-state indigenous groups, based on amalgamations of archeological evidence, was around 500 per every 100,000. By comparison, in the worst neighborhoods of America’s most violent cities, like Detroit or Chicago’s south side, the murder rate is around 45 per 100,000 deaths. In contemporary hunting and gathering societies living in remote areas untouched by the state, the average death rate from warfare is 14 percent. In America today, if we include deaths from war and homicide, the total percentage of citizens dying violently is around .008 percent. In other western countries, it is much lower.

What does this have to do with the arms trade? Places where an opaque distinction exists between militaries, police, mercenaries, warlords, and gangs—in other words failed and fragile states—are anarchically brutal. When the state is weakened to the point where basic social services collapse, physical safety can only be privately secured. Violence becomes decentralized and widespread as groups compete for resources and control over citizens, undermining democracy and the very basis of social cohesion.

When public order collapses, the demand for personal protection skyrockets. Those with a predisposition to violence gain power while genuine leaders are marginalized. We see this in countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, South Sudan, and the eastern Congo, places where the state is too weak or unwilling to exercise control over the population. Until a semblance of stable governance is achieved, the demand for arms will remain.

Flooding weak governments with guns is not the answer. A recent Washington Post article reported that the Pentagon lost track of $500 million worth of military aid to Yemen, a country on the brink of collapse and home to numerous jihadist groups. This is not an isolated incident. Just as the arms the United States covertly channeled to the Afghanistan Mujahidin in their fight against the Soviet Union were eventually used to kill Americans, so to will weapons handed over to the Iraqi army, which subsequently fell into the hands of ISIS.

Rather than supplying “vetted militants” with guns, the international community should place a premium on supporting grass-roots civil society organizations. As chronicled in the documentary Pray the Devil Back to Hell, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace movement was a salient force in ending the country’s brutal civil war through mass demonstrations and bottom-up community building programs. The movement eventually grew into the tens of thousands and became a potent political force in the country, accumulating in the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and the first female African president. Movements such as this, particularly those led by women, can have an enormous impact in ending gun cultures.

Disarmament drives and programs offering employment for young men should compliment support to civil society organizations. Hordes of unemployed youth with easy access to guns is a recipe for disaster. The economist Paul Collier has argued that too much emphasis is placed on political settlements in ending conflicts. Instead, economic opportunities should be the primary concern. Reconstruction, for example, is desperately needed in post-conflict settings. Funding it using local labor would create jobs, keeping disenfranchised youth from resorting to violence as a means to survive.

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Humanity’s greatest sins have been our inability to lives in peace and our indifference toward the suffering of others. Yet despite the countless seemingly endless horrors streaming from our televisions, there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future. People in almost every country are living longer, more meaningful lives than ever before.

As Steven Pinker argues brilliantly in his tome The Better Angles of Our Nature, despite the constant stream of horrors being broadcasted into our living rooms, humans are living in the most peaceful time in history. And things are only getting better. John Mueller has pointed out that, “By now war between many former enemies in the developed world, such as France and Germany, has become sub rationally unthinkable—it doesn’t even come up as a coherent option, and if it ever did, would be rejected not so much because it is unwise but because it is absurd.”

The rule of law, increasing respect for human rights, and slow but continuous advancement of enlightened thinking have made possible a world in which the end of extreme poverty and the end of war are in reach. Still, this comes as little comfort to people living in places like Dungu who still face tremendous suffering everyday. One day, perhaps, the planes carrying AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades to Dungu will instead bring schoolbooks and essential medicines. Until this day, we still have plenty of work to do.

15 replies »

  1. Interesting history David but I question some of the parallels you draw. China and Russia are the two largest manufacturers/exporters of AK-47s and while both are permanent members of the UN Security Council neither is a signatory on the ATT. What possible pressure does the NRA exert on them?

    Also the ATT as currently drafted most definitely calls for end user data collection by exporting countries. The NRA’s stand is that this is de facto registration and they and their membership stand firmly against it. No gun ownership lists period.

    Unreasonable you say? Perhaps but recent events in California, New York, and Connecticut absolutely show that after registration comes confiscation. No thanks.

  2. The article clearly states that “…embargoes, ending the legal import of weapons into volatile areas. The only problem is they don’t work very well.” So what makes anyone think that more rules on weapons transfers will do anything? They will help enrich corrupt govt officials who will now have more reasons to take bribes. We need to look at political & social dynamics that drive the violence & not at inanimate objects (firearms). All gun control arguments founder on the fact that there are many areas around the world where there are many guns & few to almost no murders. My hometown comes to mind. We haven’t had a murder since 1997. That’s in the allegedly high murder rate US BTW.

  3. nice piece david, although it’s almost impossible to engage on gun control because gun freaks aren’t able to carry on a reasonable argument.

    having said that, i disagree with you also, not because of silly 2nd amendment or “they’re coming for my guns” arguments, but rather because it’s the demand that’s the problem not the supply. just like prostitution, drugs, etc, you simply cant get rid of things people want, however irrational those wants.

    perhaps a treaty could slow it, but I doubt it. nuclear weapon proliferation is easier to slow down because it’s very hard technology to transfer. as i remember, ak’s are made all over the world and can basically be made in a machine shop.

    • Why is it silly to want to own guns? Considering that govts murdered many more people than private actors ever will it seems reasonable to want to disarm govts & arm the people. Think it through & you’ll see where the danger really lies.

      “The militia of these free commonwealths, entitled and accustomed to their arms, when compared with any possible army, must be tremendous and irresistible. Who are the militia? Are they not ourselves? Is it feared, then, that we shall turn our arms each man against his own bosom…Their swords and every terrible implement of the soldier are the birthright of Americans. The unlimited power of the sword is not in the hands of either the federal or state governments but where, I trust in God, it will always remain, in the hands of the people.”

      –Tench Coxe, The Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 20, 1788

      I patiently await your reasonable response.

  4. This piece was meant to touch on a myriad of issues, but domestic gun control—new regulations for your average Joe Six-Pack gun lover—was not one of them. Politicizing an issue is a great way to solidify opinions on it. No matter the evidence, each side will cite its own sources and favorite statistics ensuring that things go round and round.

    This being said, looking at fragile countries—which America is not—the evidence that more small arms lead to greater volatility is conclusive. My point was that America plays a role in this. (Yes other countries manufacture small arms, but the “they are doing it too” argument doesn’t work for kindergartners and should not work for countries).

    It takes a great deal of expertise and infrastructure to manufacture a gun, so trying to say the issue is analogous to prostitution or drugs—and that prohibition does not work—is misleading. Gun manufactures need to set up shop in a country under the rule of law and with strong, stable institutions; every gun that ends up in the hands of a child soldier was manufactured legally by a corporation that played by the rules of its host country.

    What I argue is that we need to change these rules to make it more difficult to flood the international markets with small arms. Yes, I said that embargoes don’t work very well. But this is because they are attempting to stop goods flowing into very porous borders under the control of no government—this is what it means to be a fragile state. Therefore if you care more about the lives of innocent civilians caught in the crossfires of conflict than the profits of gun manufactures, you should be for increasing regulation in places where governments can exercise control: where the arms are manufactured to begin with. This can take the form of laws limiting production or export, both of which would cut down on profits—which is what the NRA ultimately cares about—but also save lives abroad.

    Very few Americans would be opposed to laws that could help people in volatile states. The ones who do oppose them are probably profiting from them. Unfortunately, the NRA has become quite adept at convincing their useful idiots that ANY laws regulating guns are attacks on their freedom.

    • No, David, I think you’re wrong here. Over 30 countries make AK 47’s, and they’re even made by local gunsmiths in Pakistan. From Wikipedia.

      Throughout the world, the AK and its variants are among the most commonly smuggled small arms sold to governments, rebels, criminals, and civilians alike, with little international oversight.[citation needed] In some countries, prices for AKs are very low; in Somalia, Rwanda, Mozambique, Congo and Tanzania prices are between $30 and $125 per weapon,[110] and prices have fallen in the last few decades due to mass counterfeiting. Moisés Naím observed that in a small town in Kenya in 1986, an AK-47 cost fifteen cows but that in 2005, the price was down to four cows indicating that supply was “immense”.[111] The weapon has appeared in a number of conflicts including clashes in the Balkans, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia.[110]

      The Taliban and the Northern Alliance fought each other with Soviet AKs; some of these were exported to Pakistan. The gun is now also made in Pakistan’s semi-autonomous areas (see Khyber Pass Copy).[112] “‘The Distribution of Iranian Ammunition in Africa’, by the private British arms-tracking group Conflict Armament Research (CAR), shows how Iran broke trade embargoes [sic?] and infiltrated African markets with massive amounts of illegal, unmarked 7.62 mm rounds for the Kalashnikov-style AK-47 rifles.”[113]

      Estimated numbers of AK-type weapons vary. The Small Arms Survey suggest that “between 70 and 100 million of these weapons have been produced since 1947.”[114] The World Bank estimates that out of the 500 million total firearms available worldwide, 100 million are of the Kalashnikov family, and 75 million are AK-47s.[3] Because AK-type weapons have been made in other countries, often illicitly, it is impossible to know how many really exist.[115]

      To sum, I think you’re wrong about the ability of any treaty to control the supply. Treaties do control some things, where supply is very difficult and the source point readily identifiable (nuclear weapons) or where demand is relatively easy to identify and penalize, e.g. slavery. But I doubt one would work here.

      My comparison of the arms trade to prostitution wasn’t on the supply side.Of course it’s easier to be a prostitute than to manufacture a modern weapon. My point was that people will get what they want despite laws. Perhaps drugs are a better comparison. The US spends a fortune trying to seal its borders from drugs, and yet drug smugglers continue to beat the system, and do so using increasingly sophisticated technology, like submarines. Surely an AK is easier to manufacture than an ocean going sub.

    • And by the way, you comingled the global arms glut problem with US gun control in the title of your article. It’s a bit disingenuous to then claim it’s a separate issue.

        • shouldn’t you be in a bar somewhere, drunkenly arguing that juventus got robbed? 🙂

          point taken on title. still, as the comment thread showed, it’s almost impossible to seperate the two. if a reader as sharp and intellectually honest as frank d. included both in his answer, that shows how tough it is to think clearly about these issues.

        • Sidestepping the whole NRA thing which I felt detracted from an interesting and well constructed piece, I am left in total agreement with Otherwise. The ATT is an unenforceable wish sandwich. .

          We are a belligerent race and the UN while lovely in theory has an abysmal record of actually bringing the tribes of humanity together. We think of our congress as a drunken jackwagon full of lunatics but they’re almost perfect compared to the double dealing backbiting self serving dysfunctional bureaucracy that is the United Nations.

          So, while I applaud good thoughts, and reducing the suffering innocents is the best thought ever, I fail to see where this treaty even were it to be ratified by our senate would make one iota of positive difference. It might in fact make things worse.

          You made me think David and I appreciate that!

  5. Thank you for the comments. And for keeping it civil. Yes, other countries do manufacture small arms. There are even—as Wikipedia University pointed out—basement operations going on in places like the Hindu Kush that America could never hope to control. But take a look at the Stockholm Institute of Peace’s (SIPRI) fact sheet:

    Click to access Fact%20Sheet%20Top100%202013.pdf

    Seven out of ten of the world’s largest arms manufactures are located in the United States. According to the 2015 Small Arms Survey, the US continues to dominate the global small arms market:

    So would all the world’s evil end if overnight every member of congress was visited by three ghost and had a change of heart when it came to regulating our nations role in the international arms trade? No. Would it make a difference? Probably. And nonetheless, “they are doing it to” still isn’t an argument to do—or not to do—something.

    I don’t have many delusions when it comes to the UNs ability to assert itself and harness international aggression, or deny that it is a bureaucratic mess most of the time. I, in fact, work there, and spent close to a month at home this winter because that’s how long it took them renew my pass to get into the building, something that would take any competent organization ten minutes. So trust me, I know. But to take a strict realpolitik viewpoint of the world is to deny starteling and significant developments that have taken place over the last several decades in the international community, and there is good reason not to be so cynical when it comes to these hippy peacenik treaties. Anyway, that’s all I will comment on this article. Feel free to email if you are inclined.

  6. Again, fair response, David. Certainly negative arguments “it won’t work,” “we tried that in 1904 and it failed,” “it’s too hard” aren’t helpful, and as messy as things are today, the world would be far worse off if those making negative arguments had prevailed throughout history.

  7. And good luck shutting down the comment thread. sadly, posts never die. You’ll be commenting on your old posts forever. I still get a comment or two each week about one of mine I wrote a long time ago. and for the record, very few actually comment on what i wrote. most comment on what they think i probably might have sorta could have meant. 🙂

  8. Dear David

    Perhaps following March 2013 report of interest to you and your readers

    – Pinocchio Ltd. The NRA and its corporate partners: US shipments of small arms ammunition by sea (

    Our joint report highlights that the export of small arms ammunition is big business for US arms manufacturers and dealers, and that it is highly probable that the position of the NRA, and its corporate partners in the US gun industry, on the ATT, may in fact have less to do with the Second Amendment than with the refusal to submit the lucrative US international trade in small arms and ammunition to the ATT criteria.