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14.4.2021 : 7:00 : +0200

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Dribs and Drabs: The Mechanics of Small Arms Trafficking from the United States

Ammunition hidden in the seat of a minivan that was stopped by US authorities as the driver attempted to cross into Mexico. Douglas, Arizona, 2010.

When one thinks of arms traffickers, the image that often comes to mind is of the stereotypical ‘Merchant of Death’ – ambitious, well-connected, globetrotting entrepreneurs who single-handedly arm warlords and insurgents across the world. While there is some truth to the stereotype, most illicit arms traffickers do not fit this profile.

The latest Issue Brief from the Small Arms Survey—Dribs and Drabs: The Mechanics of Small Arms Trafficking from the United States—analyses a side of the arms trade that is less flashy, less centralized, and even more difficult to stop. Using an extensive database compiled from court records, the Issue Brief looks at the modes of transport, concealment methods, and smuggling techniques employed by arms traffickers in the United States, most of whom bear little resemblance to the  ‘Merchants of Death’.

The main findings of this Issue Brief include the following:

  • Robust arms export licensing regimes are necessary but not sufficient for stopping small arms trafficking. Many of the traffickers studied did not apply for arms export licences or attempt to exploit licensing exemptions; they simply bypassed the licensing system entirely. At the same time, recent examples of attempted diversion of authorized (licensed) small arms exports highlight the continued need for robust licensing systems and post-shipment end-use monitoring.

  • Arms trafficking from the United States goes well beyond gun-running to Mexico. Traffickers in the 159 cases studied shipped weapons, parts, ammunition, and accessories to at least 46 countries and foreign territories on six continents. Intended recipients of these items range from Honduran farm workers to a Finnish motorcycle gang.

  • The illicit trade in parts and accessories for small arms is more significant than commonly assumed. Networks that traffic in firearms parts are among the most prolific and geographically expansive of the smuggling operations studied.

  • Partnerships between law enforcement and the private sector are essential to preventing arms trafficking and to dismantling trafficking networks. In many of the cases studied, trafficking schemes were first detected by employees of shipping companies, firearms retailers, or other commercial entities.

The Issue Brief draws on a database that follows the activities of more than 400 individuals accused of illegally shipping small arms and light weapons, their parts, accessories, or ammunition from the US to at least 46 countries. It offers an overview of the types of small arms trafficked and how smugglers evade export controls and border controls. The Brief concludes with a policy-relevant analysis of the implications of these cases.

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