Firearms laid down by child soldiers associated with armed groups in South Sudan. Photo by UNICEF/Rich.

Firearms Trafficking ‘Enabler and Multiplier’ of Violence Worldwide

Firearms trafficking poses a “grave threat” to human life and international security, the United Nations (UN) crime fighting chief said on July 15, launching a new report from her agency that sheds light on the dangers of illicit firearms flows.

The Global Study on Firearms Trafficking 2020 focuses on the serious and “too often hidden” problem of firearms trafficking that serves as “an enabler and multiplier of violence and crime in every part of the world”, said Ghada Waly, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Making up some 39 percent of the total number of firearms seized worldwide, pistols are the most seized type of firearm globally. The report also reveals that almost all flows of arms trafficking between regions can be traced back to points in Northern America, Europe and Western Asia. 

The report, which aims to provide the most comprehensive data on firearms trafficking to date, is a vital source for law enforcement and policy makers to help reduce the damage and loss of life, stemming from illegal arms flows.

“By shedding light on challenges, and on the origin and trafficking routes of firearms, the study can support governments in strengthening law enforcement and criminal justice responses to detect and disrupt illicit flows, dismantle the criminal organizations and networks responsible, and bring the perpetrators to justice”, maintained Waly.

Firearms trafficking remains a largely invisible phenomenon, which only emerges once trafficked weapons are used to commit other crime, according to the study. On average, two-thirds of seized firearms were impounded on the legal grounds of illegal possession. However, additional information related to the seizures and tracing results, suggest that a considerable portion of these firearms may have been illicitly trafficked into the country, prior to their being confiscated. And only around half of the arms suspected to have been trafficked, were taken on the basis of having been trafficked.

When trafficked across borders, most weapons are seized on an incoming, rather than outgoing, route, suggesting that the level of scrutiny exercised by customs
authorities tends to be higher with regard to incoming firearms. It may also be indicative of existing forms of informal cooperation and information exchange between countries leading to seizures (and capture of suspects) in
the country of arrival.

Cross-border trafficking of firearms sometimes takes the form of so-called “ant-trafficking”, by which the illicit flow involves numerous individuals transporting one or a small number of firearms in order to lower the risk of detection. The report states that while this mode may not be predominant at the global level, it might be significant along certain routes.

Based on seizures by customs authorities, there are clear differences across the types of conveyance in terms of the total number of arms seized per case, with seizures from vessels being on average more than five times larger than any other type of conveyance. At the same time, seizures from vehicles accounted for more than two thirds of seizure cases, suggesting that large illegal shipments tend to travel by sea while small shipments may be more common and tend to travel by land.

The report provides examples such as the seizure of 362 arms in the Port of La Goulette, Tunisia where firearms were transported inside vehicles through seaports on board ships from the ports of Marseille (France) and Genoa (Italy). Another technique to cross the border avoiding the detection of customs was reported by the Philippines, whereby firearms were jettisoned from vessels at prearranged areas some distance from the shore and subsequently picked up by small boats. 

Data from 81 countries in the study reveals that around 550,000 firearms were seized in 2016 and 2017, with pistols the most commonly trafficked. This may be explained by the high number of responses received from the Americas, where pistols made up, on average, more than half of all seizures. Meanwhile, in Africa and Asia, at 38 and 37 percent respectively, shotguns were the most prominent firearms seized and in Oceania, rifles were top, at 71 percent. Europe seems to be the most heterogenous in terms of seizures, with pistols accounting for 35 per cent, rifles 27 percent, and shotguns, 22 percent.

The study reveals that around the world, 54 percent of homicides are carried out with a firearm. And while handguns play a significant role in gang or organized crime killings, they are far less prominent in murders involving partners or family members.

Countries with higher levels of violent death and homicide – particularly in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean – tend to seize a higher percentage of firearms connected to violent crime, while in Europe, drug trafficking is the most prominent among the other forms of crime linked to illicit weapons.

Read the full study at UNODC

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