Big Things in Small Packages: Steps to Limit Nuclear Arms Are Admirable, but an International Effort to Regulate Small Arms Would Do More to Save Lives

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Commendable as it is to seek an international reduction in nuclear arms, and it is commendable, the degree to which US President Barack Obama's campaign will actually save lives is directly proportional to the political risk his proposal entails--which in both cases is negligible.

While the specter of a nuclear-armed terrorist attacking a major international city is frightening, so is Godzilla, a potential alien invasion, or Nostradamus forecasting the end of the world. The most effective thing about both terrorism and nuclear weapons is not the actual body count they produce, but rather the ability they have to sow fear and as a result, distort priorities.

Every single innocent civilian killed by a terrorist is a tragedy, just as every person who has died as a result of nuclear weapons is appalling. More people died of bug bites last year than from terrorist attacks. Nobody has died from a nuclear weapon in more than 50 years.

An estimated 140,000 people died from the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima and another 80,000 at Nagasaki. The International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) estimates that 1000 people are killed every day by small arms and another 3,000 seriously injured. Even if we were to double the total number of estimated deaths for Hiroshima and Nagasaki--up to 440,000--to account for difficult to quantify radiation related deaths, the same number of people die from small arms about every 62 weeks.

Nuclear weapons have, of course, evolved, becoming more powerful and deadly. Use of a nuclear weapon now has the potential to kill many times more people than either bomb dropped on Japan. It is also likely that any terrorist organization that is capable of deploying a nuclear weapon on an innocent civilian population will do so with a relatively weak and hastily constructed weapon operated in less than ideal conditions. Though such a scenario paints a bleak picture, the number of deaths would have to surpass 30,000 (ten times the deaths that occurred on September 11, 2001) to equal the number of gun deaths in the United States each year.

In recent years there have been effective international campaigns to limit the use of other types of weapons. In December 2008 in Oslo, 94 countries signed a treaty pledging not to use cluster munitions, though notably not the United States. The Ottawa Treaty banning the use of anti-personnel land mines has 156 signatories, but not the United States, Russia, China, India or Pakistan. A 1993 treaty outlawing chemical weapons now has 187 countries on board. So while there is precedent for international agreements producing results, no global agreement regulating the trade in small arms exists. A UN committee vote in 2006 on a resolution titled "Towards an Arms Treaty" saw 139 countries voting "yes," 24 abstentions and only the United States voting "no." In December of that year, the resolution went before the entire UN General Assembly resulting in 153 yes votes, 24 abstentions and a lone "no" from the United States.

Obama says, "In a strange turn of history, the threat of global nuclear war has gone down, but the risk of a nuclear attack has gone up." This statement rests on the logic that since the end of the Cold War new states have acquired weapons and non-state actors have risen with the capacity and desire to acquire these weapons. However, Obama misjudges the most geopolitically destabilizing post-Cold War development.

While the rise of violent non-state actors is an increasing challenge, more dangerous than nukes is the black market economy such groups use to finance themselves and procure weapons to push their agenda. These black market operations clearly manifested themselves in Europe during the Balkan wars of the early 1990s and have been a feature of every armed conflict since--with the possible exception of the brief Russo-Georgian War of 2008. Rogue militia groups have formed networks with criminal smuggling operations and in many cases morphed into singular entities capable of bypassing international arms embargoes. …