A news photograph last March showed a group of five casually dressed young men, gathered for a game of pool in the southern Albanian town of Memaliaj. Engrossed in their game, they seemed oblivious to a striking detail: One of them was using an assault rifle as a pool cue. Revolting against economic and political conditions, Albanians had ransacked military depots throughout their country and looted more than half a million firearms.
In Albania and other places around the world, assault rifles and other so-called "small arms and light weapons" are now easily available in such abundance that they seem like casual accessories. The spread of these arms has encouraged a habitual recourse to violence that threatens the cohesion and well-being of many societies.
Small arms are the weapons of choice in today's typical armed conflict - fighting that rages within, rather than between, countries - and are responsible for as much as 90 percent of the deaths in armed conflicts.
The proliferation of small arms also fuels criminal violence. It threatens the consolidation of still-weak democracies, compromises the reconstruction of war-torn societies, and obstructs social and economic development. Small in caliber, these weapons are big in impact.
Cheap, small, and sturdy
The same characteristics that have long led policymakers to underestimate their importance also make small arms easy to acquire and handle - and hard to track and control:
* Low cost means that small arms don't figure prominently in arms-trade statistics but are affordable to many guerrilla armies, organized crime groups, or other sub-state organizations. For just $50 million - roughly the cost of a single modern jet fighter - an individual could purchase some 200,000 assault rifles at black market prices, enough to equip an army the size of Britain's military.
* Easy to handle, small arms don't require any complex organizational, logistical, or training capacities; some even can be used by children.
* Their light weight and small size make these weapons easy to conceal and smuggle.
* Small arms are sturdy enough to have a long life, making it possible for them to be circulated from one conflict to another. Small arms of World War II vintage and some even from World War I are still used in today's conflicts.
There may be some 500 million military-style firearms worldwide, of which more than 100 million are assault rifles. But year after year the arsenals continue to swell by the millions. The United States and the former Soviet Union have been the leading proliferators. But China, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and Israel, among others, also are important suppliers.
Where the weapons go
Given a multitude of legal and illegal trading networks, there is no telling in whose hands the weapons will end up. Not only are arms embargoes difficult to enforce, but the original suppliers have come to be haunted by a boomerang effect, with weapons intended for friendly recipients ending up in the hands of adversaries.
Trade in second-hand arms flourishes. Surplus weapons of armies in North America, Europe, and the former Soviet Union are being given away or sold cheaply to other countries. And weapons left over at the end of civil wars often enter the black market, resurfacing in new hot spots. Arms originally supplied to combatants in Nicaragua and El Salvador, for instance, have found their way into Colombia; arms provided to the Afghan mujahideen are now spread across South and Central Asia.
While armies disarm, civilians rearm
In many countries, small arms are filtering far beyond armies and police forces to opposition groups, criminal organizations, private security forces, vigilante squads, and individual citizens. Indeed, it may not be much of an exaggeration to say that we are witnessing an era in which, in relative terms, armies are disarming, while civilians are rearming.
The spread of small arms within society poses a particular challenge for countries struggling to emerge from long years of debilitating warfare, including several in Central America and southern Africa.
Contending with limited economic opportunities, these countries find that discontent is strong and crime is rising. Demobilized ex-combatants, with few civilian skills, often are barely scraping by and may be tempted to turn to banditry. And ordinary citizens use leftover weapons of war to carry out crimes or settle personal scores.
Widespread unemployment, poverty, social inequity, and the pressures of environmental degradation and resource depletion in the presence of large quantities of small arms make a highly combustible combination. The uncertain prospects that many young people face securing a job and establishing themselves in society may trigger criminal behavior, feed discontent that could erupt in street riots, or foment political extremism.
For a long time, the spread of small arms has been accepted as a necessary evil or even welcomed as a guarantor of security and a symbol of freedom. But a comprehensive balance sheet must weigh the perceived benefits against the real costs: loss of life and property, pervasive instability, disruption of economic development, and the threat to democratic governance that results from the violence made possible by the uncontrolled availability of small arms.
The issue of small arms is just beginning to attract policymakers' attention. Efforts are focused primarily on improving border controls, thwarting gun smuggling, and detecting secret arms caches. The Organization of American States has just adopted a convention against firearms trafficking; the European Union has kicked off an initiative to combat such transfers; and South Africa and Mozambique are cooperating bilaterally. These are overdue steps, but they will need to be complemented by action on several fronts:
* Improving the capacity of peacekeeping operations to disarm former combatants quickly and fully when wars end and to destroy collected weapons.
* Creating effective programs to reintegrate former combatants into civil society and reduce the incentives for them to turn to banditry for survival.
* Destroying surplus arms instead of selling them off cheaply.
* Adopting a "code of conduct" to govern arms sales, outlawing transfers to those who flout international standards of nonaggression, human rights, and democratic governance.
* Expanding buy-back programs and other methods of collecting weapons already in circulation.
* Adopting effective policies to limit new production of small arms and providing incentives for arms industries to convert to civilian products.
In the face of entrenched gun lobbies, such policies won't be initiated easily. But a strong constituency can be brought to life by making clear the horrendous effects of the virtually unlimited availability of small arms - human suffering, an endless cycle of violence, and persistent insecurity. Once people understand the repercussions, the political dynamic changes and the previously unthinkable appears within reach.
* Michael Renner is a senior researcher at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. This article is based on his Worldwatch paper, entitled 'Small Arms, Big Impact: The Next Challenge of Disarmament.'