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The human impacts of small arms

The human impacts of small arms

There can be no doubt that the human impacts of small arms availability and use are considerable and far-reaching in all corners of the world. More than half a million people are fatally wounded as a direct result of small arms use every year, whether through intentional violence, such as homicide and suicide, or unintentionally, such as through accidental shootings. As noted in the Small Arms Survey (2001: 236), 'the gross estimate of global deaths from all forms of homicide, war and suicide in 1998 stood at 2,272,000 ... from war, the number totalled 588,000' ( http://www.smallarmssurvey.org/Yearbook.html). It is estimated that at least 50 per cent of these conflict-related deaths are attributable directly to the intentional use of small arms and light weapons. Alarmingly, recent studies of battlefield statistics have indicated that the proportion of people wounded in combat by small-calibre ammunition (as opposed to other types of munitions) frequently rises above 70 per cent (Sellier and Kneubuehl 2001).

Arguably, the most commonly reported, if under-researched, impacts of small arms emerge from armed conflicts and societies struggling to recover from war. The media is saturated with a bewildering array of images depicting the militarization of despair. Headlines home in on child soldiers, traumatized refugees, and the apparent senselessness of contemporary war, with accompanying snapshots invariably portraying the familiar silhouette of an AK-47. The United Nations General Assembly (2000) has observed how virtually every department of the UN system is exposed to the consequences of armed conflicts, crime, social dislocation, displacement, and human suffering that are directly or indirectly related to the unregulated availability of small arms. In spite of widespread acknowledgement of the problem, humanitarian and relief agencies are only slowly developing an awareness of the specific impacts of small arms.

The range of impacts of firearm violence on relief and development is very diverse ( http://www.unicef.org/children-in-war/rgsa-smallarmsfinal-april2001.pdf). There is a virtually unlimited array of objective and subjective impacts related to small arms availability and use, most of which are under-appreciated. These often relate to fear - of death, injury, and long-term insecurity - and are difficult to quantify. A major reason why these impacts remain under-analysed is because they can be described only by affected people themselves. Methods aimed at revealing these vital perspectives, including victimization surveys and participatory research, are emerging (Banerjee and Muggah, 2002).

Table 3.1
Humanitarian impact Primary indicators
Firearm-related death and injury Firearm homicide rates
Firearm suicide rates
Firearm accident rates
Firearm injury rates
Disability rates
Psychosocial and psychological trauma
Violence induced displacement Number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs)
Incidence of firearm related death and injury
Incidence of armed intimidation and assault
Arms availability in refugee/IDP camps
Child mortality rates (CMR)
Social and physical welfare of refugees/IDPs (rape, child soldiers, etc.)
Collapsing access to basic needs and declining social capital Social and physical welfare of women and children
Household access to basic needs
Community and customary cohesion
Declining access to public goods

Objective indicators of the humanitarian impacts of small arms stress health-related effects on civilian populations such as firearm-related death and injury, as well as long-term disability and psychological trauma. Also considered is the destruction of medical services and the vulnerability associated with deteriorating social welfare provision capacities. However severe the immediate human impacts attributed to small arms, it is important to recall that the larger burden of mortality experienced during episodes of armed violence is attributable to the secondary costs of war, such as death from malnutrition, disease, and preventable illness.

The fact that millions of people die each year, not from the direct acts of violence but because the various functions of armed violence deprive them of access to health services, is not a novel finding (Ghobarah et al. 2001; Leaning et al., 1999). It should be recalled, however, that small arms can also increase the scale and pace of killing, the likelihood of illness, and the possibility of violations of international humanitarian law. The case of Sierra Leone is indicative. Immediately following the invasion of the country's capital, Freetown, by the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in 1999, a senior government pathologist reported that more than 7,330 people had been shot and killed in a single month - almost 1 per cent of the city's entire population. Thousands more suffered lacerations, mutilations, and firearm injuries. Additional surveys carried out in Sierra Leone recorded that almost 60 per cent of all war injuries were gunshot-related, that 11 per cent of all victims were under the age of 15, and that 43 per cent were women (Salama et al. 1999).

Another marker of the humanitarian impacts of small arms on civilians is violence-induced displacement. Depending on whether they have crossed an international border, displaced people can be counted as either internally displaced people (IDPs) or international refugees. It is possible to register the number of people forced to leave their homes at gunpoint. For example, 'spontaneous' internal displacement within Colombia is largely due to massacres involving handguns and assault rifles. Surveys administered in IDP and refugee camps in Albania, Uganda, Sri Lanka, and Georgia record systematic shootings, threats at gunpoint, firearm-related homicides, and other violations of human rights and humanitarian law involving military-style weapons. Refugee camp militarization is also of mounting concern. Finally, violence-induced displacement and relocation is associated with dramatic increases in the risk of illness and communicable disease. The threat and use of small arms, then, have long-term health consequences for displaced people.

Though more difficult to measure or attribute directly to small arms availability, civilian access to basic needs - including food, water, and shelter - are often eroded by the climate of fear generated by the threat and use of small arms. While men are particularly susceptible to firearm death and injury, women and children are also acutely vulnerable to a range of firearm-related insecurities including recruitment as soldiers, sexual violence, and pathological coping strategies during periods of extreme violence, all of which affects their access to basic needs ( http://www.undp.org/erd/smallarms/docs/hum_impact.pdf). Invariably, livelihoods are reshaped by arms-related insecurity: customary institutions such as pastoral migration patterns and dowry systems are undermined by threats associated with arms availability. For example, in Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, the Sudan, and Uganda pastoral and agrarian communities are regularly terrorized by the presence of AK-47-wielding bandits and cattle-rustlers. Individual perceptions of armed violence can directly influence day-to-day decision making. These choices will have tangible implications for household health and well-being, including the decision to take up weapons in self-defence.

Websites:
British Medical Journal http://www.bmj.com
Journal of the American Medical Association http://www.jama.ama-assn.org
Lancet http://www.thelancet.com
Overseas Development Insitute http://www.odi.org.uk
ReliefWeb Reports http://www.reliefweb.int
UNDP Emergency Response Division http://www.undp.org/erd/smallarms/
WHO http://www.who.int/violence_injury_prevention
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Last updated Aug 17, 2011