This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


Overview and definitions

Module 1 (Introduction to Firearms, their Availability, Illicit Trafficking and Criminal Use) explained how most illicit firearms are, unlike illicit drugs, originally legally manufactured and transferred, and at some point in their life cycle get diverted into the illicit realm. Module 3 (The Legal Market) described the legal market in firearms, its global nature, estimated size and value, and its major actors in terms of major producing, exporting and importing countries. It also looked at estimated trade volume in terms of total number of arms in circulation worldwide, and their distribution among different types of owners. This current Module looks more in depth at the illicit market and sheds some light on its links with the legal market.

Firearms serve multiple purposes. They are not only a profitable trafficking commodity but, first and foremost, a tool to consolidate power and to commit violent crimes. As Salcedo-Albaran and Santos (2017: 10) point out, " Like drug trafficking is a catalyst criminal activity worldwide due to the high level of profits it produces, firearms' trafficking is a pivotal criminal activity worldwide due to the high demand in several criminal hotspots."

The illicit manufacturing, acquisition and trafficking of firearms also functions as a market commonly known as the ' illicit global market'. Griffiths and Wilkinson (2007: 25) suggest that " (t)he illicit global arms market today works like any other largely free and unregulated system, driven by the dynamics of supply and demand. These are still dominated by relatively low loss-adjustment calculations set against the possibility of detection, interdiction, asset confiscation, accidents or non-payment risk. Clandestine arms supply is an evolving business and those involved in it have introduced innovative solutions to guard against financial loss."

While the illicit market is similar to the legal market in many respects, it operates according to other types of principles, the first and most obvious being that the nature of the illegality shapes the behaviour of the actors in the market. In second place, much like other black-market commodities, or like the experience of alcohol prohibition in the United States in the 1920s, the very fact of illegality can raise the price of certain types of contraband and incentivize illegal suppliers. In third place, ' illegal enterprise' can have no recourse to law in the event of dispute, leading to other forms of ' contract compliance', including violence.

Finally, whereas older forms of firearms trafficking were to a large extent dominated by geo-political considerations, researchers have argued in the recent past that economic profit has increasingly become the chief supplier motivation with much less consideration for ' quality control'. Naylor (1994) expands on this issue:

Compared to the cold war era, dominated by a few big suppliers who understood what their merchandise could do for their customer's political ambitions and who used arms transfers to cement political alliances, the new fragmented, criminal, weapons market has become increasingly colonized at the regional and local level by mercenaries and criminal traffickers who are chiefly interested in what their lethal merchandise might do for their own financial ambitions.

The expansion of global trade, the Internet, changing international business practices and, not least, the recent growth of private military companies, consultants and trainers who provide and deliver military services and supplies have further complicated these complex and often opaque international markets (Griffiths and Wilkinson, 2007).

The United Nations Protocol Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, their Parts and Components and Ammunition (Firearms Protocol) supplementing the Convention against Transnational Organized Crime (UNTOC) defines illicit trafficking as " the import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition from or across the territory of one State Party to that of another State Party if any one of the States Parties concerned does not authorize it (…) or if the firearms are not marked in accordance with (…) this Protocol". This definition focuses on the cross-border movement of firearms, their parts and components, and ammunition without authorization or without the proper marking of the firearms.

To prevent illicit trafficking, the Firearms Protocol therefore requires State parties to establish or maintain " an effective system of export and import licensing or authorization, as well as measures on international transit, for the transfer of firearms, their parts and components, and ammunition" (Article 10 Firearms Protocol). State parties need to establish the illicit manufacturing and trafficking in firearms, their parts and components, and ammunition as criminal offences (Article 5 Firearms Protocol), and the Protocol provides internationally agreed definitions that help shaping the legal or illicit nature of certain conducts. Other provisions of the Firearms Protocol require States to mark and record firearms, to establish preventative and security measures to impede the theft and diversion of these arms into unauthorized hands, and to consider licensing and recording brokers and brokering activities inter alia. Through this set of provisions, the Firearms Protocol has created a significant barrier to illicit manufacturing, acquisition and trafficking, a barrier that actors in the illicit market must deal with.

Important in this Module are the following definitions of the Firearms Protocol and the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT):

Arms Trade Treaty - Article 2: Scope

1. This Treaty shall apply to all conventional arms within the following categories:

  • Battle tanks
  • Armored combat vehicles
  • Large-caliber artillery systems
  • Combat aircraft
  • Attack helicopters
  • Warships
  • Missiles and missile launchers
  • Small arms and light weapons

2. For the purposes of this Treaty, the activities of the international trade comprise export, import, transit, trans-shipment and brokering, hereafter referred to as "transfer".


Firearms Protocol - Article 3: Use of Terms

Illicit Manufacturing

(d) "Illicit manufacturing" shall mean the manufacturing or assembly of firearms, their parts and components or ammunition:

  • From parts and components illicitly trafficked;
  • Without a license or authorization from a competent authority of the State Party where the manufacture or assembly takes place; or
  • Without marking the firearms at the time of manufacture, in accordance with article 8 of this Protocol;

Illicit Trafficking

(e) "Illicit trafficking" shall mean the import, export, acquisition, sale, delivery, movement or transfer of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition from or across the territory of one State party to that of another State party if any one of the States parties concerned does not authorize it in accordance with the terms of this Protocol or if the firearms are not marked in accordance with article 8 of this Protocol;

Firearms Protocol - Article 5: Criminalization

Each State Party shall adopt such legislative and other measures as may be necessary to establish as criminal offences the following conduct when committed intentionally:

  • Illicit manufacturing of firearms, their parts and components and ammunition;
  • Illicit trafficking in firearms, their parts and components and ammunition;
  • Falsifying or illicitly obliterating, removing or altering the marking(s) on firearms required by article 8 of this Protocol.

The next sections of this Module examine the following key issues:

Next: Authorized and unauthorized arms transfers
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