Conventional Arms Transfers:

U.S. Efforts to Control the Availability of Small Arms and Light Weapons

NSIAD-00-141: Published: Jul 18, 2000. Publicly Released: Jul 18, 2000.

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Harold J. Johnson, Jr
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on government to government transfers of U.S. small arms and light weapons, focusing on: (1) U.S. government monitoring and reporting policies regarding small arms and light weapons transfers; (2) the steps the U.S. government is taking at the international level to address the availability of small arms and light weapons; and (3) lessons identified regarding weapon collection programs.

GAO noted that: (1) the U.S. government has guidance, procedures, and regulations for monitoring and reporting U.S. conventional arms transfers to foreign recipients, including small arms and light weapons; (2) both the Department of State and Department of Defense (DOD) are responsible for monitoring U.S. conventional arms transfers; (3) DOD has the principal responsibility for monitoring government to government arms transfers, while State licenses and monitors commercial arms exports; (4) the Departments' monitoring activities include reviewing proposed transfers to foreign recipients and verifying that recipients of U.S. conventional arms receive and use these weapons as intended; (5) State and DOD must notify Congress prior to conventional arms transfers, if such transfers either meet or exceed specific dollar thresholds, and provide an annual report on the aggregate dollar value and quantity of all conventional arms that have already been transferred to recipients; (6) in response to the international concern about the availability of small arms and light weapons in areas of conflict, the U.S. government has taken the lead in: (a) creating international standards for governments to prevent illicit small arms transfers, including helping to negotiate the first regional agreement designed to prevent and combat illicit firearms trafficking in the Western Hemisphere; (b) establishing mechanisms to govern small arms transfers, such as strengthening export control procedures and complying with arms moratoriums; (c) developing diplomatic initiatives with other nations and multilateral organizations, such as the United Nations and the European Union's "Statement of Common Principles on Small Arms and Light Weapons"; and (d) helping other nations to destroy their excess weapons as the United States did in Liberia; (7) case studies of weapon collection programs conducted in other countries, such as buyback programs, have identified lessons that could be applied by governments or nongovernmental and international groups to future programs' design; and (8) although DOD officials recognize the need to incorporate these factors into their weapon collection program, there is no department guidance concerning how to implement these lessons within Department-managed weapon collection programs.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: DOD believes that the risk to U.S. forces in attempting to disarm hostile parties during operations other than war exceeds the utility of any weapons collection program. While situations may arise where participation in weapons collection efforts may prove beneficial to the operational outcome, such efforts are expected to be the exception and should be undertaken with due consideration to force protection, clear rules of engagement and within the mandate of the operation or peace agreement. A state has the sovereign responsibilities of collecting firearms and creating domestic gun control laws. As such, DOD believes that its role in weapons collection during the course of peace and nation building should be limited to providing technical assistance and conducting some destruction operations (supported by non-DOD funding).

    Recommendation: To more effectively conduct weapon collection programs in the future, the Secretary of Defense should direct that guidance, based on a comprehensive assessment and approach, be developed for implementing weapon collection programs.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense


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