Let’s Get Smarter About Controlling Small Arms and Light Weapons

By: Paul Kumst, Columnist

Photo Credit: ICRtoP

Approximately 535,000 people die of armed violence each year. Seventeen percent of that number, around 90,000 people, lose their lives in conflict zones.[i] These conflicts are fueled by the illicit proliferation of small and light weapons (SALW). Without the tools of armed conflict, such violent escalation wouldn’t be feasible. SALW contribute greatly to global instability.[ii] Although smart technologies are integrated in nearly every mass-produced consumer good today, they are generally lacking in the estimated 875 million small weapons around the world. Smart weapons technology should be implemented to tackle the proliferation of small and light weapons in the attempt to reduce the scale of armed conflicts around the globe.

Small arms and light weapons are mainly characterized by their portability. This categorization not only covers pistols, rifles, and assault rifles, but also heavy machine guns, grenade launchers, anti-tank weapons, and man-portable air-defense systems (MANPDS).[iii] Due to their mobility and ease of use, the ease with which these weapons spread exacerbates violence in sustained conflicts. This unchecked proliferation contributes to the displacement of civilians and fuels crime and terrorism.[iv] For instance, in 2015, the Pentagon lost track of military equipment in Yemen worth $500 million, including 200 M4 rifles.[v] Likewise, in 2011, unaccounted stockpiles of German assault rifles surfaced in post-Gadhafi’s Libya, having had new serial numbers engraved in their plastic cases.[vi] With no official explanations for these cases, they prove that even modern SALW that were produced in highly regulated economies cannot be sufficiently tracked.

With the UN Program of Action (PoA), the International Tracing Instrument (ITI), or the more recent Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), a regulatory regime already exists to address illicit arms proliferation and legal trade. However, crucial for any of those treaties is the proper identification of the weapons. Effective measures regarding the marking, record-keeping and tracing are vital for successful arms control of SALW.[vii] Until now, this process still relies on the physical identification of special characteristics and markings. Presupposing that a serial number or meaningful marking is available, it requires activists, inspectors or journalists who are willing and able to conduct an often dangerous and extensive analysis.[viii] While no physical serial number should be able to be removed without destroying the entire weapon, smart technology could add an important extra layer of accountability and security.

Sophisticated “smart guns” are already on the market and prove that sensitive electronics can be implemented in SALW. For example, the Armatix iP1 Pistol carries a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that unlocks the weapon only when a special watch is in immediate reach.[ix] Alternatively, Beretta’s ‘i-PROTECT’ system allows for the monitoring of a weapon and retrieval of data about its ammunition or location to a center of operations.[x] If new SALW were widely equipped with such features, the work of weapon experts would become much easier and safer. While high costs and implementation challenges remain major challenges, it would still be a great improvement if less complex technology for the sole use of reliable tracking were installed on SALW. While every form of technology can ultimately be hacked and deactivated, it would nevertheless be incredibly valuable to understand where and when larger amounts of weapons went offline. Similarly, the deactivation of a biometric key by a talented weapons engineer would take time and consequently slow down conflict dynamics that often unfold when weapons proliferate to various state and non-state groups. In these cases, such technologies could serve as a powerful starting point for the global attempt to prevent illicit arms proliferation.

Major problems such a proposal would encounter include not only costs and sufficiently testing and reliability challenges, but also issues of domestic regulation. In April 2016, when former President Obama attempted, once again, to introduce new policies targeting gun violence in the United States, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and some police groups immediately opposed such measures.[xi] As already seen in the precursor of the ATT, the NRA is likely to influence international treaties out of fear of implications for the US Constitution’s second amendment, even if such concerns are unwarranted. For a sensible issue like tracking and identification, such barriers constitute major obstacles to the coherent and meaningful implementation of new technologies with SALW.[xii]

As the technology is already available, the major roadblock to adjusting international efforts to counter illicit proliferation of SALW to the opportunities of the 21st century remains political will. However, if governments are interested in sustainable conflict resolution, new approaches to reduce the availability of weapons in war-torn regions are important and would help to reduce the large number of 90,000 victims from such weapons each year.

[i] Small Arms Survey, “Monitoring Trends in Violent Deaths”, September, 2016, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/about-us/highlights/2016/highlight-rn59.html

[ii] Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler, and Dominic Rohner, “Beyond greed and grievance: feasibility and civil war”, Oxford Economic Papers, August 24, 2008, doi:10.1093/oep/gpn029

[iii] Geneva Academy of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights, “Small Arms”, Weapons Law Encyclopedia, February 1, 2014, http://www.weaponslaw.org/glossary/small-arms

[iv] United Nations Small Arms Review Conference, “Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Lights Weapons in All Its Aspects”, July 7, 2006, http://www.un.org/events/smallarms2006/pdf/PoA.pdf

[v] Craig Whitlock, “Pentagon loses track of $500 million in weapons, equipment given to Yemen”, The Washington Post, March 17, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/pentagon-loses-sight-of-500-million-in-counterterrorism-aid-given-to-yemen/2015/03/17/f4ca25ce-cbf9-11e4-8a46-b1dc9be5a8ff_story.html?utm_term=.987d9ae607b0

[vi] Spencer Kimball, “Arms manufacturer investigates how Gadhafi got German rifles”, Deutsche Welle, September 4, 2011, http://www.dw.com/en/arms-manufacturer-investigates-how-gadhafi-got-german-rifles/a-15364132

[vii] United Nations Programme of Action, “International Tracing Instrument”, January 27, 2017, http://www.poa-iss.org/InternationalTracing/InternationalTracing.aspx

[viii] N.R. Jenyen-Jones, “Documenting Small Arms and Light Weapons – A Basic Guide”, Small Arms Survey, http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/fileadmin/docs/G-Issue-briefs/SAS-IB14-Documenting-Small-Arms.pdf

[ix] Armatix, “Smart System: The Future of the Firearm. Now.”, January 28, 2017, http://www.armatix.com/Smart-System.778.0.html?&L=7

[x] Beretta Defense Technologies, “i-PROTECT, a step ahead in public security.”, January 28, 2017, http://www.berettadefensetechnologies.com/i-protect

[xi] Michael Shear and Eric Lichtblau, “Obama Puts His Weight Behind Smart-Gun Technology”, The New York Times, April 29, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/30/us/politics/obama-puts-his-weight-behind-smart-gun-technology.html

[xii] Arms Control Association, “The Arms Trade Treaty and the NRA´S Misleading Rhetoric”, Issue Briefs, July 11, 2012, https://www.armscontrol.org/issuebriefs/The-Arms-Trade-Treaty-and-the-NRAs-Misleading-Rhetoric

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