Take a close look at the life cycle of almost any factory-produced item and, beyond the apparent linear process of shipping it from the manufacturer to the end user, you will observe a web of interacting, complex processes aimed at tracking goods across markets. The journey from the manufacturer to the end user is pursued with varying degrees of legislative oversight and plagued by complex logistical considerations.
The point at which a product is deemed unfit for purpose, or is considered surplus to requirements, invariably leads to yet more administrative work to ensure the responsible and safe disposal of that item.
From nuclear fuel rods and tinned food to vehicles and plastic bottles, those responsible for their disposal must adhere to often legally binding, complex regulations. If you look at any number of household items, from phones to bags of vegetables, you will see serial numbers on the packaging to ensure the process can be accounted for.
The disposal of weapons, particularly small arms such as pistols and rifles, is no different to other consumer goods.
When a weapon is manufactured, it travels along complex, international transfer routes to ultimately arrive at the end user. The end user can be a civilian gun owner or a law enforcement agency. Given the potential for illicit transfers – or “diversion” – of things as desirable, dangerous and expensive as weapons, the shipment and end-user controls are stricter than they are for common consumer goods.
Yet, despite the oversight accorded to this lethal material during its operational life, the point at which the weapon is considered obsolete, or surplus to requirements, is often a time of massive failures in stockpile control and monitoring.
Where small arms are no longer seen as an asset but rather an expensive burden, there is considerable risk that weapons will be stored in remote areas with poor oversight. As such, they are often easily stolen by criminals. In the absence of adequate stockpile control measures, such weapons will be diverted, often into the illicit market. These weapons are also often perfectly serviceable and will continue to pose a lethal threat to communities for decades to come.
Preventing the diversion of weapons at the end of their life cycle is challenging, but there are a number of cost-effective steps that can be taken that are simple and can serve to reassure communities that all is being done to combat weapons diversion. This includes the marking of weapons prior to destruction, reducing the time that weapons are kept in storage, ensuring excellent record-keeping systems are in place, and having a culture of accountability and oversight.
One of the biggest enemies in the fight to prevent diversion of surplus weapons is a lack of accountability.
When weapons are transferred from one administrative system to another (such as from judicial storage facilities to police destruction programmes), there is a risk that failures in documentation and audit processes can create opportunities for diversion. Systematic documentation and oversight by a trusted, impartial entity can identify where and when illicit transfers occur, and are key to preventing diversion. Transparency in such processes serves to reassure stakeholders (including communities) that robust monitoring is taking place.
Reducing the period of time between identifying surplus weapons and their destruction is another major way to reduce the risk of diversion. When weapons languish for months or years in storage, there is an increased risk that criminal elements will identify their whereabouts and find ways to steal them. When weapons are stored prior to destruction they must be marked in such a way that, should diversion occur at that point or beyond, officials have the means to identify how and where it happened, and take appropriate steps to prevent it from happening again.
Simple manual marking techniques, such as a metal stamp mark struck with a hammer on to the surface of a weapon, are adequate, particularly when combined with robust record-keeping.
The faster weapons are identified as being surplus and subsequently documented, marked and destroyed, the less likely it is that weapons will find their way into the hands of those who would use them against communities.
South Africa is a case in point. Although the country has destroyed thousands of weapons over the years, thereby reducing their availability for use in crime, there are also well-documented examples of the diversion of weapons from police stores into communities affected by high levels of violence and gang activity.
On Wednesday, South Africa’s national commissioner of police will oversee the destruction of thousands of surplus weapons. This destruction of redundant, obsolete and unwanted firearms, ammunition and firearm parts is one way to guarantee that these dangerous weapons are not diverted through loss, theft, fraud or corruption into the illicit market.
Rickell is a field investigator at Conflict Armament Research working across west Africa and has been involved in various weapon marking, ammunition disposal and weapon destruction programmes
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