November 18, 2005

Guns For Toddlers

In the middle of a stomach-churning essay on child soldiers, Caroline Moorehead points out that so many militias recruit children, in part, because the global trade in light arms makes it so easy for children to fight. "You no longer have to be rich enough or strong enough to carry a Kalashnikov: it weighs little more than a small dog and, in parts of Africa at least, costs about the same as a chicken." Obviously there are a million reasons why militias recruit children. And obviously people can be killed with machetes. Still, she has a point—if guns were scarcer, you're less likely to give one to the six-year-old.

In general, I don't much care about gun control within the United States. I think arms manufacturers are as belligerent and reckless as drug companies or the oil industry or any other set of large corporations—that is, very. In a not-so-benevolent Plumer dictatorship, they'd be regulated into the dirt. But if Americans want an assault rifle in every home, what do I care; there are more important domestic issues out there.

But the global arms trade is very different, in both its "respectable" and underground parts, especially the trade in small arms. There's little evidence that the vast overflow of small arms does anything other than worsen conflicts in the developing world. Assault rifles sold by, say, Italy and Japan to say, the Algerian government usually end up in private hands. 60 percent of the 639 million small arms in existence worldwide are privately owned, so obviously this "leakage" happens frequently. (Often, as was often the case during the Cold War, it's intended by the seller.) So first it's Algeria and pretty soon, Ugandan rebels are buying up ten thousand surplus rifles on the black market and handing one to little Johnny.

Obviously you want to shut down those black markets—more on that in a bit—but that's ultimately futile so long as the supply of light arms is so expansive. But there's not much hope that things will change anytime soon. For awhile it looked like the end of the Cold War would help to shut off the arms production madness from the "developed" world that started in the 1970s, a boom that served no useful purpose save for enriching manufacturers and getting a lot of people killed. But the "war on terror" has given G-8 countries the excuse they need to loosen controls on conventional arms exports—despite the fact that these weapons kill far more people worldwide than, say, chemical weapons (some 300,000 a year).

That means that repressive regimes that like to gun down marchers in the streets can now count on landing that arms deal they've been hoping for, so long as they promise to aim them at terrorists now and again. That's a problem in itself, but it also In the U.S., Congress is nowadays much less likely to clamp down these sales, as it did in 1998, when it stopped the Clinton administration from arming Turkey's bloody crackdown on the Kurds (years too late). And needless to say, arms sold to repressive regimes, which tend also to be the most corrupt regimes, tend to find their way to the general population—and little Johnny—more easily. (One should note that government-to-government exports aren't the only problem; insurgent groups and anyone else can easily purchase small arms in the US domestic market. Gun shows are great for this.)

The prospects for solid export controls and other sensible measures don't look good, either—this past July, the United States helped kill a UN proposal to create a system for tracking ammunition. It's hard to expect otherwise. Arms manufacturers have always had a death-grip on policymakers here and in Europe—for years they've been invaluable for pump-priming the economy when needed and creating jobs for constituents. Moreover, many of these Cold War manufacturers can't just "convert" to peaceful purposes, as various military industries did after World War II. Like a felon who's spent all his life in prison, the arms industry, which has always worked in the shadows—bribes, smuggling, laundering—probably won't adjust well to the civilian sector. So that means they're going to have to keep arms exports, and defense spending, running at full blast in order to avoid a decline. (It's especially bad in Russia, where only 10 percent of firms received state orders in 2001.)

So cracking down on the production of arms in the West looks like a dim prospect. Even if it could be curbed, that's only part of it—the secondary arms trade is so massive, and "upgrade services" have become so plentiful, that many arms can be easily recycled from one conflict to the next, without buying anything from the West. Plus, developing nations have been starting their own arms industries since the 1980s; in fact, it's one of the best ways to weather international sanctions—as both Israel in the 1960s and South Africa in the 1980s discovered—and a way to engage in a little "industrial policy" at home. The black market on arms, meanwhile, is even tougher to crack down on than the black market in drugs, since it's generally sanctioned by most national governments.

Some arms control experts suggest that "supply-side" controls will only work at the margins, at most, and one needs to focus on the demand side. That means somehow getting developing nations to stop fighting wars and other bloody conflicts. But why do countries and groups within countries fight and demand weapons? Because they're poor, usually, and everything that comes with that. Why are they poor? As Branko Milanovic has shown, because they keep getting involved in wars and other bloody conflicts. Why are those conflicts so deadly? Because it's so easy to buy arms.
-- Brad Plumer 12:53 PM || ||