gun control

By Carole Audrey Nyemeck (@carolenyemeck)

Cross-post from The Journal of Policy Innovations

Originally posted February 5, 2016.

In the 1700s, Adam Smith made the point that unlike what we might think, letting rich people become richer may have unintended social benefits for the whole society. He illustrated this point with a selfish landlord who, because his sole stomach cannot consume his huge harvest, finds himself unwillingly sharing it with his servants so much that, at the end, nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life are made between the rich and the poor. He further made the point that once the government has administered public works, he should no longer intervene in the market, but rather let people trade freely—and as a result, the economy  will automatically find an equilibrium. He called this whole concept ‘the invisible hand’. Adam Smith was then laying the foundations for an economic theory advocating free competition and a self-regulating market—what we know today as ‘liberalism’. One of the resulting practices of liberalism seems to be the eclosion of lobbies in the public and private spheres.

A lobby can be referred to as a group of people who support some cause, business, principle or sectional interest, and who try actively to influence legislation with regard to that matter. While lobbying is neither fundamentally positive nor negative, there is a type of it where the self-interests of the more powerful country, company, community, or individual preside over the common good of society. I refer to that kind of lobbying as one-sided. Indeed, most oftentimes, one-sided lobbying is achieved through dominance positions (use of money and/or power to win favors) that precondition agreements between constituencies. However, its externalities are not always good for society.

In the modern era, things like the trading of greenhouse gas emissions (carbon trading) and advertisements of drugs and tobacco as an incentive to consumption are seemingly domains pervaded by a one-sided lobbying where market gains preside over the environment and public health. However, Michael Sandel, in his book “What money can’t buy”, assembled evidence to refute the idea that markets are amoral and have no moral impact. He demonstrated that the economic approach of “utility maximisation” causes a dual phenomenon of unfairness and degradation of values, at work in many areas of society like carbon trading. That argument has led to one of his most direct statements of political engagement: “Democracy does not require perfect equality, but it does require that citizens share a common life.”His conclusion is even more pertinent as he argues that: “The question of markets is really a question about how we want to live together. Do we want a society where everything is up for sale? Or are there certain moral and civic goods that markets do not honour and money cannot buy?”

From what precedes, I am triggered to focus precisely on a topic of great concern in our modern world: the business of selling guns to civilians in a global society so terrified by terrorism and growing incentives to deviate from ethics. How are firearms channeled into terrorism and criminal networks? Is there one-sided lobbying financing the production of firearms for terrorism and/or criminal endeavors? What can policymakers do to address that global security issue?

Understanding the business of guns

The firearm manufacture designates the legal trade of small arms and light weapons, with their parts, accessories, and ammunition. Legal transfers are generally defined as those approved by the involved governments and in accord with national and international law. Illegal transfers (also known as black market), clearly violate either national or international law and take place without official government authorization. Gray (or grey) market transfers are those of unclear legality, as they do not belong in either of the two aforementioned categories.

In terms of exports, the Small Arms Survey (SAS), an independent non-governmental organization, said in its 2003 report that at least 1,134 companies in 98 countries worldwide are involved in some aspect of the production of small arms and ammunition. In 2012, the top exporters of small arms and light weapons (those with annual exports of at least USD 100 million), according to available customs data from the United Nations Commodity Trade Statistics Database (UN Comtrade), were (in descending order) the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, Austria, South Korea, the Russian Federation, China, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Turkey, Norway, and Japan.

In 2012, the top importers of small arms and light weapons (those with annual imports of at least USD 100 million), according to available customs data, were (in descending order) the United States, Canada, Germany, Australia, France, the United Kingdom, Thailand, and Indonesia.

The five largest exporters of small arms during 2001–12, according to available customs data, were (in descending order) the United States, Italy, Germany, Brazil, and Austria. The United States was also, according to available customs data, the world’s largest importer of small arms during 2001–12. The next four largest small arms importers during this period were Canada, Germany, France, and the UK.

Other findings by SAS reveal that small-arms exporters have also authorized exports of small arms to non-state armed groups that are inclined to fight extremist groups, notwithstanding the risk of misuse or diversion. However, SAS argues that regional intergovernmental information exchanges on small arms transfers are not contributing to public transparency, yet regional reporting instruments that cover broader categories of conventional arms are releasing annual reports to the public.

Impact in public safety and criminology

The impact of the business of selling guns to civilians still seems unmeasurable, since the global policy community often lacks evidence of a correlation between the expansion of the manufacture of firearms and the degree of violence. In the US for instance, on the one hand, a study by the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy showed that, since the 1990s, dramatic increases in American gun ownership have coincided with equally dramatic drops in rates of criminal violence. On the other hand, studies of gun deaths by the Pew Research Center have found that, while gun-related homicides have seen marked declines over the last 30 years, almost half the public believes instances of gun violence are actually increasing. In light of that paradox, the website Global Risk Insights suggests that, “the gulf between perception and reality could be explained in part by the understandable fear created by the sensational and seemingly unending media coverage of shooting events as they happen, as well as the sense of alarm raised by advocates for increased gun control.”Moreover, according to thesame site, it is that same media hype “that could be fueling the record breaking demand for guns by everyday Americans.”

Yet, the global threat of terrorism through mass shooting really seems to be present, and can neither be denied nor overlooked…

In 2015 alone, there were eight major mass and/or school shootings, notably:

In January 7, 2015, three masked gunmen stormed the office of Charlie Hebdo, a satirical weekly magazinein Paris, France, and killed 12 people, including the paper’s top editors and cartoonists and two police officers.  Later in the year, in November precisely, three suicide bombers struck near the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, followed by suicide bombings and mass shootings at cafés, restaurants and a music venue in central Paris.

On April 2, 2015, gunmen stormed the Garissa University College in Garissa, Kenya, killing 148 people, and injuring 79 or more.

In June 17, 2015, a white male opened fire during a prayer service at the historically significant Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Churchin Charleston, South Carolina, killing nine people, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor, and a state senator. The alleged gunman, Dylann Storm Roof, 21, was caught about 200 miles away on June 18.

In July 16, 2015, in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a gunman opened fire at a Navy and Marine recruiting center, killing four Marines. Three other people, including a recruiter and police officer were injured. One of the injured men later died of his wounds. The suspect, identified as Muhammad Youssef Abdulzeez, was shot and killed by police.

In October 1, 2015, in Roseburg, Oregon, a gunman opened fire at Umpqua Community College. Nine people were killed and seven more wounded. The suspected shooter, 26- year-old Chris Harper Mercer, killed himself after exchanging gunfire with the police.

On November 20,2015, Islamist militants took 170 hostages and killed 20 of them in a mass shooting at the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, the capital city of Mali.

In December 2, 2015, in San Bernardinao, California, fourteen people were killed and more than 20 wounded when two people opened fire at a holiday party at the Inland Regional Center, a service facility for people with disabilities and special needs. The suspects, husband and wife Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, were killed in a shootout with police after the rampage. Officials said they believe the attack was terrorism related.

As 2016 just began, on the 22nd of January, Canada witnessed a school shooting in La Loche, Saskatchewan, an impoverished community about 600 km (375 miles) north of the city of Saskatoon. The suspected gunman first shot his two brothers at home before opening fire at the remote community high school, as reported by a family friend and the town’s acting mayor. On this day, he went on to kill four more people and injure several others in Canada’s worst school violence event in a decade.

On January 15, 2016, gunmen armed with heavy weapons attacked the Cappuccino restaurant and the Splendid Hotel in the heart of Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso.

In mid-January 2016, in the town of Charsada in northwest Pakistan, four gunmen stormed the campus at Bacha Khan University and randomly opened fire on students and teachers in classrooms and school dormitories. Approximately 20 people were killed and 23 wounded.

Policy intervention

Some policy interventions have already been made. However, they are sometimes viewed as limited in extent and scope due to the lack of sufficient tools to determine which policies actually work to prevent trafficking in firearms and to see where trafficking is increasing or decreasing. Some of the most recent interventions are discussed below.

The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT)was adopted by the United Nations General Assemblyto regulate international trade in conventional arms by establishing the highest international standards and to prevent and eradicate illicit trade and diversion of conventional arms. This treating was ratified by 80 States, signed by 130, and entered into force on December 24, 2014.

The release of the 2015 study on firearmsby the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) raised global knowledge on illicit trafficking in firearms, including its transnational nature and the routes and modus operandi used, by enhancing understanding of this phenomenon and its links to other serious crimes. Altogether, the study endeavored to show that great strides towards understanding trafficking in firearms can be made with a relatively modest amount of effort;that aim was pretty well achieved. Nonetheless, a widespread lack of capacity to collect and analyze data on firearms seizures and trafficking in developed and developing countries alike, was a fundamental limit to it.

In the US, in response to the latest recurrence of terrorism through mass shooting, President Obama issued a new executive action on guns in January 2016. The Second Amendment to the United States Constitution explicitly limits government in its ability to regulate or restrict gun ownership, so the President amended the Brady Law without touching on the individual citizen’s liberty to own a gun:

“Anybody in the business of selling firearms must get a license and conduct background checks or be subject to criminal prosecutions. It doesn’t matter whether you’re doing it over the Internet or at a gun show. It’s not where you do it, but what you do.”

Critics see this rule as “vague”. Indeed, under the 1993 Brady law, private sellers couldn’t conduct basic background checks on their customers, because only federally licensed firearms dealers had access to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) to determine if an intended gun sale may proceed. Now, this 2016 executive order will require private gun sellers to become federally licensed.


The greatest concern for our modern world seems to be to prevent guns from falling into the hands of possible terrorists and/or criminals, in an era where there are no geographical borders or differences between what is possible and what is allowed by ethics. Further, even though the possibility of one-sided lobbying financing guns for terrorism and/or criminal networks remains unclear, it is still of prime importance that policymakers extend the scope of dealers falling into the legal business of gun selling. Doing so may reduce the scope of dealers in the illegal business.

Secondly, policymakers should make sure the extended legal business of guns is not pervaded by one-sided lobbying that would channel guns into the hands of terrorists and/or criminals. To achieve that, leaders in governments, firearm manufacturers and non-governmental organizations in favor of and against gun control should all unite. Indeed, uniting will allow them to set frameworks that distinguish between appropriate lobbying for gun selling (one that takes place to ensure people feel secure in case of any security concern) and one-sided lobbying for gun selling (one that wants to take place at all costs, beyond what is common good for society; and thus can be easily exploited by terrorism). Undertaking this endeavor could at least help extirpate the extent of power of a possible one-sided lobbying of gun selling for terrorism endeavors.

Another alternative could be for the World Trade Organization (WTO) to raise the costs of importing and exporting firearms from and into the regions most afflicted by terrorism related to mass shootings and killings. The most dangerous regions may even be kept “gun-free for civilians” for a certain period; only the army would be allowed to keep guns, and strictly for professional uses. In exchange, the regions that accept this deal would benefit from competitive advantages in the import and export of other specified goods and services vital to their economic prosperity during that period of gun restriction.

While these suggestions are just tentative, the breadth and depth of this global debate remains in the hands of policymakers and leaders, for the sake of public safety.

About the Author

Carole Audrey Nyemeck is the founder and manager of The Journal of Policy Innovations.She also serves as Commonwealth correspondent on As a policy blogger, her interests dwell in education for innovation and socioeconomic progress, the implementation of science and technology for sustainable development, the design of better institutions & better structural policies, market failures & public-private-civil society partnerships, and the political economy of transnational relations.


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