It should come as no surprise that, in the wrong hands, guns can devastate whole communities. The Colorado movie-theatre massacre and the Newtown elementary school shooting of 2012 in the US shocked the world and filled the news cycle in Australia for weeks.
But whereas the damage caused by lawfully purchased weapons in the US is sadly well-documented, what is poorly understood is the true extent of the damage caused by small arms. Western society tends to overlook the international ramifications of gun violence.
Small arms are thought to be responsible for around 90% of all recent war deaths, according to the Red Cross. It's hard to know exactly how many deaths that adds up to, but the Small Arms Survey conservatively estimates that 52,000 people were killed in conflict every year in the middle of the last decade. And that's just conflicts. The small arms survey also estimates that 245,000 people a year are killed by firearms in violence unrelated to war.
To put this number into context, consider that the total number of people who have ever been killed by nuclear weapons is estimated to be just under 200,000.
Small arms facilitate violence, sexual assault, organised crime, drug smuggling and people trafficking. Individually, each crime committed with the aid of small arms violates the rights of an individual or group. But when taken collectively, we come to terms with an unfortunate truth: small arms are humanity's true weapons of mass destruction.
Australia has carved out a position as a world leader in domestic gun control. The Port Arthur massacre in April 1996 that took the lives of 35 people, and the regulation that followed, serves as an example that well-crafted measures can seriously reduce deaths caused by small arms. There have been no gun massacres in Australia since.
Australia needs to capitalise on this leadership position on the international stage. On 2 April, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly voted in favour of a landmark Arms Trade Treaty (ATT). The ATT aims to better regulate the international trade of, among other things, small arms. Signing of the ATT opened on 3 June, with ratification expected in the following months.
However, with 875 million small arms in global circulation generating trade of nearly US$8.5 billion and causing $400 billion damage to the international economy annually, we must understand that the treaty will not be a panacea for our gun woes.
Critics are already suggesting that the optimism surrounding the ATT is misplaced; passing the treaty through the UN General Assembly was relatively easy compared to the task of getting countries to sign and ratify it, let alone to fund the ATT's programs. Fortunately, Australia has a unique opportunity to alleviate some of these concerns, in three ways.
Firstly, Australia has close ties to both the US and China. The former is the world's largest exporter of small arms and the latter is rapidly expanding its arms sales. Our economic and political connections provide us with clout in discussions with both countries. Support from China and the US will be crucial to the success of the treaty. Both Washington and Beijing face intense domestic opposition to the treaty, not only due to the significant profits that come from small arms exports, but also from staunch advocates of gun rights.
Australia should balance this opposition by leveraging its close ties to both countries to ensure they sign and ratify the ATT, and that they comply with the spirit of the treaty.
The second strength Australia can capitalise on is our newly acquired seat on the UN Security Council, lasting from January 2013 to December 2014. This two-year period will be crucial to the success of the ATT. If the treaty starts strongly and capitalises on the momentum from the General Assembly vote, it might make headway on the problem of small arms trade. If not, the treaty could be seen as toothless and irrelevant by those distributing these weapons.
Given the Security Council is tasked with upholding international peace and preventing conflict, Australia should use its seat to advocate for the benefits of full compliance with the ATT. This would include pushing for comprehensive monitoring programs for the treaty to ensure compliance from the treaty's signatories.
Thirdly, Australia is in the lucky position of having both major political parties in favour of gun control, as shown by the legislation that passed after the Port Arthur massacre. With this bipartisan issue, we have a rare opportunity for both major parties to cooperate on a treaty that would increase global security and stability and that could save the lives of thousands every year.
Whatever the outcome of the federal election, both the current and incoming governments should show leadership in supporting the ATT. Doing so is the first step in halting the spread of the most destructive class of weapons ever created.
Photo by Flickr user DVIDSHUB.