This module is a resource for lecturers  


Illegal firearms in social, cultural and political context


The legal or illicit nature of firearms and their movements is not always simple and straightforward, but closely linked to the existing regulatory framework that applies at national, regional and international levels, and which can vary significantly from country to country. Module 5 (International Legal Frameworks) and Module 6 (National Regulations on Firearms) demonstrate how firearms control regimes are probably among the most influenced by social, cultural and political circumstances and contexts, particularly relating to aspects such as civilian ownership, possession, and manufacturing, as well as transfers and disposal of such items. International instruments do not fully cover these cases.

Squires (2014: 23-39) has attempted to describe and categorize a range of firearms control regimes and establish a possible correlation between their restrictive or liberal nature and the different types of societies in which they operate. This correlation can range from affluent ' social democratic' cultures to those that are transitional, conflict-ridden or fragile. The former (such as the Scandinavian societies) still retain popular hunting traditions and relatively high levels of closely regulated firearm ownership or are post-colonial and former 'frontier' societies with typically more liberal firearms ownership regimes (such as America, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and India). The latter, however, are usually highly unequal and riven by ethnic, regional or political conflicts. Here firearm possession is either poorly regulated or unregulated, and they often become the destination for large-scale firearms trafficking.

This classification is not exhaustive or absolute; some typologies of societies and their organizational and political structures might not fit at all within these broad groupings. The classification must be seen as a heuristic approach aimed at exploring the extent to which differences in social contexts, political systems and institutions can influence national firearms control regimes, weapon manufacture, supply and demand, and cultures and traditions of firearm use and misuse.

The point of differentiating between such firearms control regimes is to emphasize the different ways illicit firearm markets operate across them. In high control regimes with tightly regulated and effectively enforced measures, the scale of illegal firearm trafficking may be limited. It is the vulnerable points where firearms will transit from legal to illegal. These might include being smuggled in small numbers - the so-called ' ant trade', where many deliveries of small numbers of firearms, over time, result in the accumulation of large numbers of illicit firearms by unauthorized end users (SAS, 2013; Freeman, 2015). They may be stolen from legal firearms holders; diverted into criminal hands by corrupt firearms dealers; converted blank firers; re-engineered antique weapons; the small scale manufacture of bespoke ammunition for obsolete caliber weapons (Holtom et al., 2018); or the reactivation of deactivated ' souvenir' weapons by a variety of small-time illegal cottage industry entrepreneurs (Williamson, 2015). These are some examples of firearms that enter the illicit realm because of legal loopholes and weak controls.

There are generally more opportunities for weapons to transit from legal to illegal, for instance by theft and ' informal' transfer, in liberal gun ownership regimes where firearm regulation is more permissive and gun ownership rates relatively higher. One notorious example is the ' gun show loophole' in the United States where firearm enthusiasts might swap, sell, trade or barter firearms and accessories, often beyond any regulative oversight (Burbick, 2008). Consequentially, many of these firearms sold at these gun shows with little or no paper records are also the ones at risk of diversion and illicit trafficking northwards into Canada and southwards into Mexico. According to official data, over half of the illegal handguns recovered in Canada, and around 80% of illegal firearms recovered in Mexico, all successfully submitted for tracing, were primarily designed for the US domestic market and sourced from within the United States (Goodman and Marizco, 2010; Schroeder, 2013). These included some 68,000 weapons, many of which were high-specification military assault rifles. Furthermore, most military-style firearms seized by the Police in Brazil, especially ' automatic pistols and assault rifles', originated from the United States (Rivero, 2004).

In fractured, failing and conflict-torn areas, war, terrorism, civil strife, insurgencies, organized crime, drug cartels and gang cultures generate their own demands for firearms. The type of trafficking in these countries can take different sizes and shapes, and range from large-scale arms trafficking, sometimes facilitated by governments engaged in proxy wars or looking to exploit leverage over client States (Schroeder et al., 2006; Arsovska and Zabyelina, 2014), to smaller amounts of firearms being trafficked in relatively constant flows (' ant trade'). It may involve the dissemination of military weapons into civilian hands in the aftermath of wars or regime changes, and at other times, the trafficking takes the form of more prosaic illegal commerce motivated by criminal gain (Naylor, 1998).

The dichotomy between liberal and restrictive regimes, however, is also dependent on other factors, such as the levels of crime and violence in a country, the State capacity to enforce and apply its own domestic legislation on firearms control, and past traditions of armed civilians, for example. Cultural and historical factors can play an important role not only in determining the permissive or restrictive approach towards civilian ownership of firearms for cultural and recreational use, but also in relation to such ownership for self-defence purposes. Countries with high crime, for example, can have opposite responses to these challenges. One is very restrictive regulation of civilian ownership, possession and use, as in countries like Mexico, or alternatively an even more liberal approach to civilian ownership for the purpose of self-defence, as in so-called ' frontier societies' like the United States, or in countries coming out of civil unrest or facing sudden or imminent external threats. In these last cases, the State response can be to actually arm the civilian population and permit self-defence when the State itself cannot provide such protection. 

Furthermore, any arms control regime is as valid as its enforcement in practice. Low enforcement capacity equals insufficient state control, creating opportunities for illicit firearms trafficking and proliferation. Countries with very restrictive firearms legislation but a low level of control and enforcement in the field, or with very outdated and incomplete legislation, may be more likely to become targets of illicit arms proliferation and trafficking.

Next:  Supply, demand and criminal motivations
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