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SALW Disarmament

Updated: Jan 11, 2022

By Lucie Gamba (April 30, 2021)

Table of Contents

What is SALW ?

The challenges of SALW disarmament: why are they dangerous?

The Tools Implemented

Gun Problem in the USA


What is SALW ?

A. Quick definition

A brief introduction to explain what SALW is and what is included in this weapon classification

SALW stands for Small Arms and Light Weapons. According to the UN, small arms are weapons that are predetermined to be used by one person. It includes “inter alia, revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, sub-machine guns, assault rifles and light machine guns”.

Light weapons are designating weapons that are “designated for use by two or three persons serving as a crew”, even though it is possible to be carried and exploited by a single person. It includes heavy machine guns, grenade launchers or mortars for instance, however it needs to be less than 100 mm in calibre. SALW also includes portable weapons such as mines and grenades.

Today, the number of SALW in circulation is estimated at 875 millions, which is one for every 7 persons on the planet. 650 million are owned by civilians, the rest being owned by State representatives (army and law enforcement). According to the Small Arms Survey, between 700,000 and 900,000 are manufactured every year, which represents an additional 36 to 46 millions in the next 50 years.

B. The SALW Lifecycle

Discussion of the SALW lifecycle is a very valuable and illustrative way to look at SALW because it puts in a holistic perspective every aspect of the existence and usage of SALW. Thus discussion of the lifecycle are included in international regulation (such as the UN PoA on SALW) and international guidelines for usage (such as MOSAIC).

The SALW life circle is divided in seven parts :

  • Manufacturing

  • Marking and Tracing legal ownership and trade

  • Conversion to illegal usage

  • Law enforcement confiscation

  • Stockpiling

  • Destruction

  • Recycling

  1. Production and Manufacturing

SALW production is divided into two categories, industrial and craft. Industrial production represents about 95% of global production.

Over 1000 companies are manufacturing SALW in 100 countries around the world. The ammunition is manufactured in nearly 80 countries. The top producing countries are also the top exporters. However, in some countries it is impossible to determine their production numbers, such as India, Pakistan and North Korea. Manufacturers usually produce cartridge-based SALW, non-cartridge-based SALW, ammunition and pyrotechnics, for military and civilian markets.

Craft fabrication refers to weapons and ammunition fabricated largely by hand. There is also a new means of production of weapons, which are 3D printers, that can produce effective firearms. This results only in small quantities. Except for a few cases (such as replicas of antique firearms produced in the US), this production is not regulated by the States or is under limited control. We can take the example of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia that produce copies of American and italian weapons, or the Irish Republican Army that produced mortars. These weapons are therefore untraceable and can be used for illegal activities such as crimes. This is one of the main problems of weapons being created by 3D printers. Being principally made of plastic, they are not detectable by metal detectors and do not have any cast markings. However, the 3D printers weapons are regulated by some countries, but it is not enough to stop their proliferation.

There is also the issue of ghost guns, which is a term principally used in the United States that includes homemade firearms often built from kits of disparate oddly shaped parts which can be bought online without any commercial serial number and thus hard to detect with security x-ray machines. This is a problem because the traceability is thus very difficult or even impossible, and those weapons can thus be involved in crimes and terrorism more easily.

2. Marking and tracing

The method for marking SALW is up to the choice of the States, however there are requirements to respect in order to make the marking and tracing efficient. A record has to be kept, which is a national prerogative. Cooperation between States in the tracing has to be facilitated.

3. Conversion to illegal usage

It can happen at two different moments: during an exchange in ownership (diversion of transfer), or during a period of ownership (diversion of holdings). Diversion of transfer happens when the weapons are being stolen or lost during transportation. Diversion of holdings happens when the weapon enters into the illegal trade during a period of legal possession (for example, weapons getting stolen). There are three types of diversion: accidental, fraudulent end-users and non-compliant end-users.

4. Law enforcement confiscation

It includes only the weapons seized and confiscated by law enforcement from an illegal usage. Those weapons are either sold or destroyed. According to the Firearms protocol, the weapons shall have a connection with illicit trafficking or manufacturing. This is recognized as the best available measure of transnational firearms trafficking.

5. Stockpiling

Efficient stockpiling of SALW is mandatory in order to avoid severe accidents. The majority of SALW are detained by civilians, but most of the weapons that are lost come from the military. In order to avoid this, recommendations and guidelines have been issued by international organisations, such as UN MOSAIC program and OSCE, regarding location, security, access control or inventory.

6. Destruction

The SALW that are seized and unmarked have to be destroyed, or marked. The destruction is permanent, and should happen after all legal processes have ended, in order to keep legal evidence. There are different types of destruction :

  • Smelting and recycling : parts and components of firearms a smelted in an industrial stove

  • Bandsaw: an industrial bandsaw is used to cut the firearms in order to destroy them.

  • Burning: weapons are burned by using a highly flammable substance.

  • Cement: weapons are cast into cement blocks that are later on buried under the ground.

  • Crushing by armoured fighting vehicle: armoured fighting vehicles crush firearms by driving back and forth over them.

  • Crushing by hydraulic press: the press bends and parly crushs the firearms.

  • Cutting by oxyacetylene or plasma

  • Cutting by hydraulic shears

  • Detonation: destroying the weapons by using high explosives

  • Shredding

7. Recycling

In some cases, firearms can be recycled instead of destroyed. It can be, for example, transformed into alarm pistols, weapons decoration, household goods like table coasters or belt buckles.

C. How can people acquire SALW?

Explanation on the ease of obtaining them (leftovers after a conflict, illegal trade…)

Acquiring SALW is relatively easy. Besides obtaining them legally, there are a lot more weapons that are acquired illegally by people. It is possible to legally obtain them in gun shops, retail stores, arms fairs or even online. Illegally, it is possible for people to obtain them from criminal networks or by theft. A post-conflict situation is also an occasion to obtain a weapon, with the leftovers left on the battlefield or when armed forces withdraw and leave weapons behind, made easy by the absence of authority such as government.

The Challenges of SALW Disarmament: Why Are They Dangerous?

Easy to buy, to use, to conceal, to trade

One of the particularities of the SALW is that they are easy to obtain and to handle. This represents a problem in society because :

  • It is easy to handle them

  • They are inexpensive: they are easy to acquire legally or illegally, or even to fabricate

  • They can be swapped between individuals

  • They have a long life-span (50 to 100 years)

  • They are used in domestic abuse cases

  • They can cause incidents, including childrens

  • They are used as well in local random criminal activity

  • Besides isolated criminal activities, they are implicated in organized crime, armed rebellion or terrorism

  • They are easy to hide.

One of the other problems that represent SALW traffic is the tracking of the weapons, because it makes it difficult to track weapons without a regularly maintained and updated registry. Some recommendations were issued in a background paper of the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research, which provides that a national registry recording all SALW should be maintained by member States, including information about the weapon. A better follow-up of the SALW is necessary, and it can be possible at least for the ones that are legally bought.

It is therefore necessary to accelerate disarmament, because SALW are threatening peace and stability.

Implication in criminal activity and abuses

The range of consequences is wide. SALW contribute to the development of terrorism, organised crimes, and other violent activities such as piracy, wildlife smuggling and human trafficking. The increase in violence has numerous implications, from the obvious increase in deaths and injuries, there is then also impact on gender-based violence and domestic violence.

Besides the rise of violence and insecurity, there is an economic cost. The economic cost includes increas in healthcare, law enforcement, property damage and other costs.

The Tools Implemented

A. The regulations

Treaties (international/regional)

Internationally, the main international treaties regulating firearms are:

  • The Firearms Protocol of 2001 is a binding legal instrument that is fighting against the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, their components and ammunitions at the global level. The aim is to give to the Member States a framework in order to “control and regulate licit arms and arms flows, prevent their diversion into the illegal circuit, facilitate the investigation and prosecution of related offences without hampering legitimate transfers”.

  • The International Tracing Instrument (ITI) of 2005 has for goal to “enable States to identify and trace, in a timely and reliable manner, illicit small arms and light weapons”, to facilitate international cooperation in order to fight against small arms and light weapons. It is always associated and combined with the United Nations Programme of Actions.

  • The International Ammunition Technical Guidelines (IATG) of 2011 aims to ensure a safe management of the ammunition stockpile. It is based on an approach that includes the whole life of the ammunition, such as the categorization, accounting, physical security, surveillance and reliability. It should reduce the unregulated spread of ammunition and unintended explosive incidents.

  • The Arms Trade Treaty: adopted in 2013, it is now signed by 130 Member States. The goals are different for the countries : for some, the aim is to contribute to regulating lawful trade, or for others, is to fight against illicit trade, or both. It applies to conventional weapons (everything except nuclear, chemical and biological weapons). By preventing the transfers of weapons to the illicit trades, it is also restraining conflicts and violence.

On the regional scale, there is a large range of treaties, organisations and decisions in order to fight against the SALW proliferation and for disarmament. We can quote the OSCE in Europe or the ECOWAS in Africa.

B. The tools

Those treaties are implemented by the UN and its Member States. The UN agencies that are mainly applying it are the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. There is as well the United Nations Disarmament Commission and the Conference on Disarmament. However, there was a need to put in place some programs of action such as the United Nations Programme of Actions in order to help the application of the treaties and decisions. There are also some guidelines that needed to be put in place, that have been done first with MOSAIC.

The United Nations Programme of Action (PoA) : adopted in 2001 by all the UN Member States, the goal is to “promote at the global, regional, subregional, national and local levels, the prevention, reduction and eradication of the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects”. By joining this treaty, governments are acknowledged to enhance their national small arms laws, as well as the controls of import and export and the stockpile administration, by cooperating and assisting. This treaty is completed by the International Tracing Instrument. Those two programs are always combined.

MOSAIC is a set of guidance and standards that combines the expertise of numerous professionals about small arms and light weapons. The goal is to assist the Member States in their disarmament efforts and small arms control measures, by converting into practice the goals of the agreements and treaties previously explained. There is no obligation to participate in MOSAIC. It has been developed in order to provide a coherent response to requesting States.

C. There is still a gun problem : why? Tensions and instabilities around the world are growing and there is still SALW in circulation despite the treaties. We can blame it on the insecurity and the right of people to defend themselves in a hostile world. But there is also a bigger issue, that is the gun culture, and that can cause huge problems, such as in the US because guns and violence are actually glorified and romanticized.

Focus on the Gun Problem in the USA

  1. The reasons for the gun problem in the USA : the gun culture and the gun lobby, and its results

American history is tied to guns. The main reason for gun culture in the US is the Second amendment of the Constitution, that recognises the right to keep and bear arms. Adopted in 1791, it also accords the right of self-defense and to form a militia, and draws its origins from English common law. This was originally adopted in order for the Southern States to defend themselves in front of the slaves’ revolutions, by maintaining the slaves' patrols. Today, there are two ways to read and interpret it : the right to bear arms is inviolable and the same for everyone is the Republican point of view. The other, the Democrat point of view, is that the right to bear arms is not an unlimited right and is only authorized in the frame of a well-organized militia.

However, the actual societal context is not the same as at the time of the writing, but the Republican interpretation remains the majority. The numerous attempts by the different authorities such as Barack Obama or Columbia District to limit the access to SALW stayed without the expected effect because of the gun culture in the US that is ubiquitous, as the different studies can show.

One of the biggest lobbies of gun ownership is the National Rifle Association (NRA). Active since 1871, it advocates against gun control and believes that guns are making the country safer. It places the Second amendment as the principal argument for gun ownership. One-in-five gun owners belong to the NRA, 24% of the Republican gun owners and 11% of the Democrats gun owners.

One of their main arguments is the fact that owning a gun would be a way to be free and express their own liberty. 74% of the gun owners see the right to own a gun as essential, against 35% of the non-gun owners. 91% of the Republican gun owners and 61% of the Republican non-gun owners view the right to own a gun as essential to their freedom, against 43% of the Democrats.

The public is divided about the influence of the NRA over US gun laws. However, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, the NRA spent in 2020 more than 2 million dollars in lobbying and more than 29 million dollars in outside spending. Since 2004, more than 173 million dollars have been spent by the NRA in order to influence American politics.

The same study shows how the gun culture is influencing government policy in the USA :

According to a study conducted by the Pew Research Center, 42% of the respondents live in a household with a gun, and 48% grew up in a household with guns.

This shows that gun culture is omnipresent in the USA. The same study shows that white people are more likely to be gun owners: 48% of the white men currently own a gun, against 24% of nonwhite men. 24% of white women own a gun, compared to 16% of nonwhite women. There is a correlation between gun ownership and political party affiliation: 44% of Republicans and independents that bend toward the Republican party own a gun, compared to 20% of Democrats and Democratic voters.

Why are there still so many people that own a gun in the USA? How do guns influence American policy? Today, 67% of gun owners are quoting protection when they are asked the reason for gun ownership. Owning a gun also has an influence on the perception of gun violence in the US. The fact that it can be easy to legally obtain a gun in some States is less seen as a cause of this violence as the ease in which people can illegally buy a gun. Additionally, people that own guns are less seeing a violence problem in the US than people that don’t own a gun. This is paradoxical, because half of the gun owners interested in this study know someone that has been shot, either accidentally or not, against 40% of non-owners. Additionally, a study showed that having a gun at home increases the risk to hurt someone in case of an invasion: there is twice more chance that the invader obtains it than the gun-owner uses it in self defense.

To buy a firearm is pretty cheap in the US. For example, a handgun can cost approximately 200$, while an assault rifle costs approximately 1500$.

B. Comparison of the situation between States with a heavy regulation about SALW and States with a light regulation

A study of 2015 showed that violent deaths in the USA are way much higher than the other high-income countries. Even though there is gun-related killing in countries where SALW are forbidden or strictly regulated, the rates are considerably lower than in the US.

Homicides are here including murder and manslaughter, and excluding justifiable homicides.

The firearm homicides rates in the US are comparable to the rates of countries such as Pakistan or Democratic Republic of Congo.

According to the Small Arms Survey in 2018, the US is the country that owns the most guns. The lack of control prior to obtaining a weapon caused tragedies that could have been avoided, such as the Charleston shooting. To develop this example, we can study the German weapons regulations, where it is mandatory to pass a psychiatric evaluation to buy a gun before the age of 25 years old. Dylann Roof would not have been able to procure weapons and to commit the mass shooting because of his mental disorders.

There is also a correlation between firearm-related suicides and gun ownership. A study shows that a State-level firearm ownership is associated to an increase of the firearm-related suicides and a decrease of the nonfirearm-related suicide rates. This study explains that firearms ownership policies will reduce suicides rates.

Australia is an example that is worth considering: after the Port Arthur mass shooting in 1996, measures have been taken to ban a multitude of weapons, that results in the fact that since that year, mass shootings in the country have become a rare event. Gun-related deaths dropped as well (suicides and homicides).

C. Gun violence became a public health issue

American history is enameled by firearms incidents. One of the main problems is school shootings. Most of the time, the weapon used for the school shooting was legally bought by the shooter or by a parent. In the US, there are also 57 times more school shootings than the other major industrialized nations (G7 countries) combined between 2009 and 2018.

Some shootings have tragically gone down in history, such as Columbine in 1999, Sandy Hook in 2012 and Parkland. Those shootings were particularly violent and have highlighted the scourge of weapons in the US.

Shooting became a public health issue for a very important reason: it can cause post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A study shows that it increases the anxiety, nightmares, depression and other symptoms. Childhood traumas have a stronger effect on the person and are more long-lasting than adult trauma and are interfering in the development of the child. Some survivors from Parkland shooting gave testimony in this sense.

To reduce numbers of victims in mass shootings in schools, they are forced to organise drills in order to protect the children. According to the National Center of Education Statistics, 46,5% of the schools were organising exercises like those in 2003-2004, compared to 70,3% 10 years later. There is a constant rise of safety measures in schools, which includes the ones to avoid mass shootings. However, even if the years 2017 and 2018 was the deadliest in American schools since 2006, figures remain constant.

D.The initiatives to regulate the gun problem in the USA : March for our lives

The gun problem is more and more taken into consideration. For the young generation, there are spikes of supporters for the protection of gun rights after different shootings that happened during the beginning of the 21st century. After those events, the movement for better gun regulation was launched and counted more and more supporters.

Graph representing the change of attitude of the 18 to 29-years-old about the gun issue in the US.

We can talk about the movement March for our Lives that took place on March 24, 2018 with 880 events all around the US and the world, with the main event in Washington DC. This demonstration took place a month after the Parkland shooting. The requests were mainly for a universal background check for gun sales, and raising the age for gun ownership and possession. The goal of this movement can be related to the principle of the Humanitarian Disarmament Movement, that, instead of talking about national security, is promoting human well-being.

The tendency in the US is not the total ban of handguns, but stricter legislation of trade and ownership. Only 7 States ban assault weapons and 2 are regulating it without banning it. However, there is still a long way to go before there is stronger regulation of assault weapons. We can take for example the Capitol Hill insurrection and the last presidential elections in January 2021, when firearms sales increased by 75% compared to January 2020. This rise can be compared to the increases that happened after the elections of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and the killing of George Floyd in June 2020. Democrats being more inclined to restrict access to weapons is thus what worries gun owners.


[1] “International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Ilicit Small Arms and Light Weapon”, United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 25 February 2013

[2] “Small arms and light weapons (SALW) and mine action (MA)”, NATO, 15 February 2015

[3] United Nations Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in all it’s Aspects -

[4] United Nations Modular Small Arms Control Implementation Compedium (MOSAIC, previously known as ISACS) -

[7] “3D printed firearms: the Wild West of gun control”, Gwilym Roberts-Harry, May 15, 2017

[8] “3D Guns – Means of Prevention & Restriction by Countries”, Gwilym Roberts-Harry,

[9] United Nations Modular Small Arms Control Implementation Compedium (MOSAIC, previously known as ISACS) -

[10] Saferworld. “Module 9, Stockpile Management of Weapons and Weapons Safety,” pg. 5

[11] Berkol, Ilhan. n.d. Review of Marking, Registering and Tracing Small Arms and Light Weapons: Policy Options for the European Union. United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

[12] Kollue, Nyonsuabeleah. n.d. Review of Global Overview of the Small Arms Problem. IANSA.

[13] “The Firearms Protocol.” n.d. United Nations : Office on Drugs and Crime.

[14] “International Instrument to Enable States to Identify and Trace, in a Timely and Reliable Manner, Illicit Small Arms and Light Weapons.” n.d. Accessed February 24, 2021.

[15] “International Ammunition Technical Guidelines | International Ammunition Technical Guidelines.” n.d.

[16] “International Ammunition Technical Guidelines – UNODA.”.

[17] “A/CONF.192/15(SUPP) - E - A/CONF.192/15(SUPP) -Desktop.” n.d.

[18] Roberts, Dan. 2013. “Gun Control: Barack Obama Condemns ‘Shameful’ Failure to Pass Reform.” The Guardian, April 18, 2013, sec. US news.

[19] Review of . 2015. United States Court of Appeals for the district of Columbia circuit,

[20] OpenSecrets. 2021. National Rifle Assn Profile: Summary. [online] Available at:

[21] L. Kellermann, Arthur. 1995. Review of Weapon Involvement in Home Invasion Crimes, June.

[22] “Violent death rates in the US compared to those of the other high-income countries, 2015”, Grinshteyn Erin and Hemenway David,

[23] Sack, Kevin. 2017. “Trial Documents Show Dylann Roof Had Mental Disorders.” The New York Times, February 2, 2017, sec. U.S.

[24] Michael Siegel, Emily F. Rothman, “Firearm Ownership and Suicide Rates Among US Men and Women, 1981–2013”, American Journal of Public Health 106, no. 7 (July 1, 2016): pp. 1316-1322.

[25] Stanford Law School. 2017. “How US Gun Control Compares to the Rest of the World | Stanford Law School.” Stanford Law School. Stanford Law School. June 21, 2017.

[26] Rose, Lisa. 2018. “The US Has Had 57 Times as Many School Shootings as the Other Major Industrialized Nations Combined.” CNN. 2018.

[27] “The Impact of Mass School Shootings on Mental Health.” 2016. - Mental Health Treatment Resource since 1986. 2016.

[28] “Parkland School Shooting Survivors Say They’re Suffering from PTSD.” n.d. Accessed February 24, 2021.

[29] “Indicator 19: Safety and Security Measures Taken by Public Schools.” n.d.

[30] “Indicator 1: Violent Deaths at School and Away from School.” n.d. Accessed February 22, 2021.

[31] “Our Demands for the Biden-Harris Admin.” n.d. March for Our Lives. Accessed February 24, 2021.

[32] Business, Chauncey Alcorn, CNN. n.d. “Gun Sales in January Set a New Record after Capitol Hill Insurrection.” CNN. Accessed February 22, 2021.


Officials documents :

Studies and research papers :




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