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  This module is a resource for lecturers  


The need for a legitimate market


There are several arguments put forward by manufacturers and distributors of firearms as to why the industry is important at both a national and international level. This section of the Module will outline some of those key arguments, as well as the opposing points of view, without making value judgements of the legitimacy to any of them.

Among the incentives to export arms are the following: the need to enhance the security of the allies or partners; the desire to constrain the behaviour of adversaries; the prospect of arms transfers influencing governments' internal or external behaviour; and the creation of economies of scale necessary to support a domestic arms industry (Thomas, 2017).

The demand for small arms and light weapons (SALW) stems from three main sources: state security sectors, organized non-state groups, and micro-level demand from individuals (Attwood et al., 2006: 32). This section of the Module will deal with the first of these demands, while Module 5 (The Illicit Market) of this University Module Series deals with other aspects.

Competing legal frameworks in different States further complicate the legitimacy of the legal market. A transaction may be legitimate in the State that dispatches the weapons but illicit in the State that receives them. Module 6 (National Regulations) discusses this grey area (not to be confused with the grey market).

The trade in small arms is undeniably large. Based on recent studies, the international small arms trade was worth at least USD 6 billion in 2014 (Holtom and Pavesi, 2017: 13). Trade in ammunition also played an important role and accounted for 38 per cent of global transfers. The value of military firearm shipments increased by 49 per cent between 2013 and 2014, from USD 475 million to USD 708 million. In contrast, the value of transferred pistols and revolvers declined by 16 per cent, from USD 1 billion to USD 845 million (Holtom and Pavesi, 2017: 13). It is important to note that the cost of firearms has another dimension relating to the impact caused from gun violence, which in the United States alone resulted in USD 8.2bn of direct costs (Follman et al., 2015).


The role of the arms trade in advancement of technology

The arms trade has been a key driver of technological development since its very early days. The steam engine, the assembly line, and Global Positioning Satellites are three good examples of the civilian use of techniques and processes developed for the arms trade.

The steam engine

The static atmospheric steam engine, which was designed and developed by Thomas Newcomen in the mid-18 th Century, was very inefficient, as it converted only about 1 per cent of the thermal energy in the steam to mechanical energy (Wailes et al., 2018). In the late 18 th Century, James Watt and Matthew Boulton improved the efficiency and design of the steam engine and this gave birth to an invention that kick-started the Industrial Revolution and changed the world (McKie, 2015). However, Boulton and Watt's engine would not have been nearly so effective, or important, had they not been able to use a new system for boring cast iron developed by John Wilkinson in 1775 and used to manufacture cannons. The accuracy and reliability of Wilkinson's system led him to become the main supplier of cylinders for Boulton and Watt (Grace's Guide to British Industrial History, 2018). The impact of the Industrial Revolution, both economically and latterly in terms of climate change, has been enormous, and without technology designed to produce firearms it would not have happened as it did.

The assembly line

Although manufacturing had used versions of the assembly line for some time, the combined work of axe-maker Elisha Root and pistol maker Samuel Colt furthered its success. Root was an engineer and designed a new type of metal stamp for Colt, and a new milling machine. He also produced machines that bore gun barrels, gauges, fixtures and many other industrial devices - pioneering work that standardized Colt's production and made its parts interchangeable; a huge leap forward in the Industrial Revolution resulting in the transition from handcrafted goods to machine production (Hoffman, 2014). Due to the gains from Root's inventions, Colt was able to transform his factory into the largest armoury in the world (Simpson, 2018).

Global Positioning System (GPS)

The GPS has its origins in a United States Department of Defense project called Navstar, which relied on 24 satellites orbiting the Earth (Howell, 2018). Initially, the signal from these satellites was intentionally degraded for civilian use in a process called Selective Availability, but was discontinued in 2000 under orders from President Bill Clinton (Howell, 2018). According to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), there are two parallel GPS systems: Standard Positioning Service, which is available " on a continuous, worldwide basis, free of any direct user charges" and the more accurate Precise Positioning System, which " is restricted to US Armed Forces, US Federal agencies, and selected allied armed forces and governments" (NASA, 2012: 1).

As the last example above demonstrates, firearms research can sometimes bring benefits to the civil world, especially in situations where funding is limited for civilian research but more available for military purposes. Nevertheless, this could not be a justification to encourage military research in detriment of civilian research, but rather as a base to initiate a better crossing and sharing of benefits between military and civilian research. According to the Campaign Against Arms Trade, in 2017 alone the United Kingdom exported military goods (including, but not limited to SALW) worth £6.6bn, which equates to the whole of local government capital expenditure on transport in 2016/17 (HM Treasury, 2017). The arms trade is clearly important for economic development and economic income of states, but in order for regional and global stability to be maintained, it is important that the trade is balanced. The next section of the module deals with the regional balance of power and relationship with sovereignty within the firearms context.


The role of the arms trade in sovereignty and regional balances of power

Writing in 1970s, Hamer (1976) pointed out that the driver of the international arms trade was the use of force by States, and the world trade in arms would probably cease when force was no longer necessary. However, this argument neglects the fact that States also require arms to protect their sovereignty from other States as well as non-State actors; and, as Arendshorst (2005:1) acknowledged, the "[s]mall arms trade plays a prominent role in the economies of nations at war, and particularly in intrastate conflicts. The availability of small arms makes war possible, and their continuing availability fuels the protraction of war ."

Writing before the signing of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), Bromund (2012) expressed concerns that the Treaty would be a risk to United States sovereignty as it would impose constraints on the United States rather than affect the dictatorial regimes at which the treaty is aimed. In fact, as Lynch (2013) pointed out, United States Secretary of State John Kerry praised the ATT for allowing States to conduct legitimate arms trade as a sovereign right. There is also a link here to Weber's (1919: 1) ideas about the State's monopoly on the use of violence since the State is simple a " human community that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory."

This argument is the crux of the debate about possession of small arms, and the argument is the same at the levels of individual, criminal gang and national. In essence, it boils down to three key elements:

  • I am/we are honourable / law-abiding / peaceful / trustworthy;
  • "They" are not, and they have firearms;
  • I need firearms to protect my property / defend my turf / maintain my sovereignty.

Yablon (2017) contended that a study by Donohue et al. (2017) seemed to have debunked the argument in relation to individuals, showing that States within the United States, which made it easier for individuals to carry a firearm, had higher non-fatal violent crime than those states that did not. The United States State Department joins the debate by arguing that the right to monopolize the legitimate exercise of force is, by definition, part of State sovereignty. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter allows States the right to use force in self-defence, or in defence of their sovereignty. Small arms and light weapons used to maintain domestic order and to defend a nation's borders represent the most visible and enduring manifestation of these basic rights, and thus will always remain closely identified with issues of independence and sovereignty. A logical extension of these rights is the right for States to legally manufacture or otherwise acquire weapons necessary for self-defence (United States State Department, 2001). Legally and factually, this is entirely correct: generally, the issue of a sovereign right for a state to manufacture firearms is not debated, other than by those who are ideologically committed to the eradication of all weapons, legal or illegal.

Regional balance of power links to that of sovereignty. The Balance of Power Theory comes from International Relations and would be more accurately referred to in the plural since, as Wohlforth et al. (2007: 157) point out, "[t]here are so many versions of balance-of-power theory that we cannot even list them all." Essentially, as Schweller (2016) puts it: " A "balance of power" system is one in which the power held and exercised by states within the system is checked and balanced by the power of others. Thus, as a nation's power grows to the point that it menaces other powerful states, a counter-balancing coalition emerges to restrain the rising power, such that any bid for world hegemony will be self-defeating." In terms of firearms, this means that if one state in a region starts to amass high levels of weapons, whether through importation or production, it has the potential to pose a risk to the regional balance of power. Export controls are one way of controlling this, but of course do not cover domestic arms production.


The role of export controls

The Arms Trade Treaty maintained the sovereign right of States to manufacture firearms, and there is a strong economic incentive for those firearms to be exported. According to Bromley and Griffiths (2010: 1), "[o]ne of the most effective means of preventing small arms and light weapons (SALW) from reaching conflict zones or embargoed destinations is through the denial of export licences in situations where it is likely that the goods will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions and thus enter the illicit market." Module 5 (International Legal Framework) and Module 6 (National Regulations on Firearms) deal with export controls in more detail. Export controls are standards followed by States in relation to arms exports. They apply whether the arms are privately manufactured, or produced in state-owned factories, and whether the putative export is to an individual or a State body.

EU Member States, for example, should follow the EU Common Position on Arms Export Controls (2008), in which Article 2 identifies eight criteria against which States must judge applications for export on a case-by-case basis. These are summarized as:

  • Respect for the international obligations and commitments of Member States;
  • Respect for human rights in the country of final destination as well as respect by that country of international humanitarian law;
  • Internal situation in the country of final destination, as a function of the existence of tensions or armed conflicts;
  • Preservation of regional peace, security and stability;
  • National security of the Member States and of territories whose external relations are the responsibility of a Member State, as well as that of friendly and allied countries;
  • Behaviour of the buyer country regarding the international community, as regards in particular its attitude to terrorism, the nature of its alliances and respect for international law;
  • Existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions; and
  • Compatibility of the exports of the military technology or equipment with the technical and economic capacity of the recipient country.

The Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies (Wassenaar Arrangement) is, amongst other things, directed at the export of firearms. In line with the European Union Common Position, the Wassenaar Arrangement makes it clear that " The decision to transfer or deny transfer of any item will be the sole responsibility of each Participating State" (Article 3), but sets out in Article 7 a list of best practice documents which States can use when exercising their discretion.

Both the European Union Common Position and Wassenaar Arrangement are limited in their jurisdictional scope. For a wider view, we must look at Article 6 of the Arms Trade Treaty, which forbids the export of conventional arms by States in violation of United Nations Security Council embargoes, or international agreements. This particularly refers to those " relating to the transfer of, or illicit trafficking in, conventional arms", or if the use of the arms in violation of the 1949 Geneva Convention or for crimes against humanity is known. These transfers are prohibited ab initio, and Article 7 gives a similar list to the European Union Common Position of criteria, which must be considered on a case-by-case basis. Article 7 requires States to:

Assess the potential that the conventional arms or items:

  • would contribute to or undermine peace and security;
  • could be used to
  • commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law;
  • commit or facilitate a serious violation of international human rights law;
  • commit or facilitate an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to terrorism to which the exporting State is a Party; or
  • commit or facilitate an act constituting an offence under international conventions or protocols relating to transnational organized crime to which the exporting State is a Party.
Next: The key actors in the legitimate market
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