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Exclusive: African gun violence

From the killing fields of Burundi, Mali, and the Democratic Republic of Congo to the streets of Lagos and Johannesburg, small weaponry, such as rifles, pistols, and light machine guns, are filling African graveyards in ever-increasing numbers. While the international community attempts, so far unsuccessfully, to reach an agreement on the regulation of the global trade in small arms, a growing number of African countries, UN agencies, and non-governmental organizations are grappling with the human and development consequences of gun violence and seeking to reduce both supply and demand for what former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has referred to as "the weapons of choice for the killers of our time."

It's become more critical than ever to reduce the availability and usage of small guns in areas where war has ended.

As the number of conflicts has increased over the last decade, reducing the availability and usage of small guns in areas where fighting has ended has become increasingly critical to Africa's development prospects. Weapons abuse diverts scarce government resources from health and education to public security, hinders investment and economic growth, and denies developing countries access to the skills and abilities of small arms victims.

During the Cold War, millions of light arms were transported to Africa to equip anti-colonial fighters, newly independent states, and superpower proxy armies alike. Light arms are lightweight, extremely portable, and devastatingly effective in the hands of even young or poorly trained operators. Following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a new influx of small guns entered Africa.

Years later, insurgents, local militias, criminal organizations, and ordinary people left exposed to violence by inept policing and simmering civil unrest continue to wield these enduring death instruments. A Soviet-designed AK-47 assault rifle, coveted for its simplicity and firepower, may be bought for as low as $6 in some regions of Africa, or traded for a chicken or sack of grain. In 1999, the Red Cross claimed that the 1.3 million citizens of Mogadishu alone had over a million weapons, out of an estimated 550 million small arms in circulation globally.

"The spread of light weapons in Africa poses a huge threat to development," said Ms. Virginia Gamba, former director of the South African Institute for Security Studies' Arms Management Programme (ISS). Their low cost, ease of use, and accessibility "may escalate conflicts, undermine peace agreements, intensify [violence] and the impact of crime, obstruct economic and social growth, and obstruct the establishment of social stability, democracy, and good governance," according to the report. The US government estimated in July 2001 that tiny guns are fueling conflicts in 22 African countries that have claimed the lives of 7-8 million people. Guns are not only the preferred weapon of choice in Africa, but also weapons of mass destruction.

The influence of war on individuals, communities, and states on development is undeniable and widely documented. Modern warfare ruins economic and social infrastructure, uproots populations, paralyzes economic activity, disrupts crucial health and education services, and diverts financial resources from development to defense by its very nature — and sometimes by design.

The influence of small arms on development in post-conflict contexts is less well studied. Unlike large weapons systems, which can be expensive to acquire and operate but relatively simple to decommission or monitor, the end of a war does not always mean the use of light weapons comes to an end.

However, small arms are so durable that once they're in a country, they're always a threat, especially in countries with a lot of weapons.... Criminal gangs, vigilantes, dissidents, and individuals concerned about personal protection frequently outlast peace agreements and are resurrected in the post-conflict period." Possession of a gun can be a necessity of survival in locations where state security is weak or non-existent, either to steal food and other essential supplies or to protect oneself from attack. In some places, the low cost and easy availability of firearms can encourage a "culture of violence," in which gun ownership becomes a symbol of power and prestige, and gun violence becomes a first resort for resolving disputes.

Statistics on crime can also be used to assess the influence of small guns on development. Because apartheid-era crime reports in Africa are regarded as unreliable, ISS researchers examined post-apartheid police records and found a "marked increase" in the use of firearms to commit murder, from 41.5 percent of homicides in 1994 to 49.3 percent in 1998, despite a decrease in the overall number of murders. Although the overall number of robberies involving weapons of all kinds increased only little, the usage of small arms in robberies grew dramatically, from 51,000 instances in 1996 to 69,500 in 1998.

According to the experts, the surge "indicates that more criminals are arming themselves" and that "access to firearms has gotten simpler in recent years." The death and injury of so many young people has far-reaching implications for development, reducing the number of educated people entering the workforce, diverting family and social resources to those disabled by gun violence, and forcing the government to redirect funding from social services to law enforcement. Some Africa countries, for example, spent $1.96 billion on law enforcement and $1.56 billion on health last year.

In combat circumstances, the disproportionate impact of weaponry on young men has been widely documented. In times of peace, the situation is similar. Males of all ages account for 80% of homicide victims, according to WHO, while males are 3 to 6 times more likely than females to commit murder, with both victims and assailants primarily drawn from the 18-49 age group.

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