Global Gun Control: Examining the Consequences of Competing International Norms

By Grillot, Suzette R. | Global Governance, October-December 2011 | Go to article overview

Global Gun Control: Examining the Consequences of Competing International Norms


Grillot, Suzette R., Global Governance


The global spread and misuse of small arms is one of the most alarming and growing security issues of the post-Cold War era. For many reasons, however, controlling the spread of small arms is extremely difficult Nonetheless, given the serious nature of the small arms issue, numerous states, nongovernmental organizations, and individual activists have sought to address various small arms problems. One of the earliest suggestions that analysts and advocates offered was to develop international norms and standards of behavior that outline the parameters of acceptable small arms activities. Despite the numerous actions that states and NGOs have taken over the past ten years in an effort to combat these problems, corresponding norms are relatively weak or nonexistent. This article seeks to answer why this is the case. It examines why global small arms control norms are largely weak or nonexistent and explains why the prospects for stronger norms are few. Although research on norms in international relations is swelling with studies showing whether, how, and why norms emerge and affect state behavior, few studies focus on cases where norms actually do not emerge or influence action. The primary explanation for weak small arms norms is a competitive normative environment that is facilitated and perpetuated by: (1) competing coalitions that promote opposing norms and ideas and (2) a great-power consensus that works against stronger arms control norms. Keywords: small arms, light weapons, arms control, international norms, competing norms, armed violence, nongovernmental organizations, transnational advocacy networks, competing coalitions.

ONE OF THE GROWING AND MOST ALARMING SECURITY ISSUES OF THE POST-Cold War era is the massive proliferation and misuse of small arms and light weapons. (1) Because light weapons are cheap, readily available, and easy to transport (and smuggle), they are the weapons of choice (or necessity) for many engaged in violent conflict. Small arms also play a significant role in terrorist and criminal activity. (2) Accordingly, the resultant human destruction has been astonishing. (3) Most experts agree that the large-scale spread and misuse of these weapons have victimized millions of people, largely in the developing world. Experts estimate that somewhere between 60 percent and 90 percent of all conflict-related deaths result from small arms. (4)

Moreover, the unchecked spread of these weapons, particularly in developing countries, brings with it destabilizing forces that contribute to a number of domestic and international problems. Easy access to small arms, for example, undermines human security by "creating and sustaining a culture of violence" whereby social interaction and cultural identities become entwined with the possession and use of weapons and the perpetuation of gun violence. (5) Extreme and excessive accumulation of small arms and light weapons prevents progress toward democratic reform and damages prospects for economic development in countries undergoing transition. (6) Finally, widespread availability of small arms prolongs wars and undercuts conflict resolution and post-conflict peacebuilding within and among states. (7) Many argue, therefore, that the international community cannot ignore the impact of these weapons on the global security environment. It is imperative that we face and address the "severe and distinctive threats to international peace and stability engendered by the proliferation of small arms and light weapons." (8)

Controlling the spread of small arms and light weapons is, however, extremely difficult for a number of reasons. First, small arms are considered "legitimate" weapons that serve a variety of purposes such as policing, providing for the national defense, and sport shooting. It is not possible, therefore, to discuss a ban on these weapons--and their legal trade is difficult to limit given their legitimate uses. Second, these weapons are available in vast numbers. …

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