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Civilians and small arms

Highlights

Regulations on Civilian Ownership of Firearms

Of the estimated 875 million small arms in circulation—a category of weapon that includes handguns and rifles—roughly 650 million are owned by civilians. These include private security personnel (with an estimated 1.7 – 3.7 million guns) and gangs and other armed groups (with between 3 and 12 million guns). Of the rest, some 200 million are owned by state military forces, and 26 million by law enforcement agencies. The vast majority are held by private citizens.

In almost all countries civilians are permitted to purchase and possess firearms—with restrictions. Civilian firearm regulation is decided by each country as it sees fit, based on its own mix of cultural, historical, and constitutional factors.

The Small Arms Survey 2011: States of Security—the latest edition of an annual review of global small arms issues and themes, released on 6 July 2011—includes an analysis of the regulations governing civilian ownership of firearms in a sample of 42 jurisdictions (28 countries and 14 sub-national entities).

The chapter’s findings indicate that national approaches to civilian firearm regulation turn on the question of whether civilian ownership is seen as a basic right or a privilege. Of the countries reviewed, in only two—the United States and Yemen—is ownership of firearms a citizen's basic right. Figures published in the Small Arms Survey 2007 show that the USA and Yemen also have the highest rates of firearms per civilian, with an estimated 90 guns per 100 people in the US, and 55 in Yemen. These are followed by Switzerland (46) and Finland (45). Norway—currently in the news for the mass shooting in Oslo—has the 11th highest rate of civilian ownership, with an estimated 31 firearms per 100 people.

Despite a lack of international standards in this area, and irrespective of whether countries see civilian firearm ownership as a right or as a privilege, the reviewed jurisdictions share many elements of civilian firearm control. These include licensing systems that regulate access, gun registration, and record-keeping, and restrictions and prohibitions on the possession of certain weapons. More fundamentally, national controls on civilian firearm access are generally three-pronged, simultaneously regulating the type of firearm civilians can possess, the user, and the permitted use of firearms.

The chapter notes that laws governing civilian ownership change over time, sometimes reflecting broader shifts in public attitudes towards armed violence—and towards regulation itself—but are also often sparked by high-profile mass shootings. In Australia, a set of reforms was enacted nationally immediately after a massacre in 1996 at Port Arthur, Tasmania, in which 35 people were shot and killed. Other countries, like Canada, Finland, Germany, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom, have similarly revised their legislation following mass shootings in which civilian-owned weapons were used.



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