Small arms are weapons that can be carried by individual infantry soldiers – essentially firearms. There are different technical definitions for small arms based on the caliber of the firearm: for NATO, small arms refers to “all crew-portable direct fire weapons of a calibre less than 50 mm.” Common types of small arms include handguns (such as pistols and revolvers); rifles and shotguns; and automatic weapons (such as machine guns.) The term small arms and light weapons (SALW) includes also light weapons, which are designed for use by a crew of two or more people, for example anti-aircraft weapons and mortars of less than 100mm calibre.

Gun violence – the use of small arms in situations of crime and conflict – is widespread in many countries, causing high levels of deaths and injuries. Countries have adopted a range of responses to gun violence and most countries have national laws in place to govern the use, sale and possession of guns.

There are hundreds of millions of small arms in circulation worldwide and the lack of controls on their transfer, possession and use means that they are easily accessible and continue to spread around the world, fueling armed violence.

At the international level there have been a range of efforts to deal with the small arms issue, as a result of pressure from civil society organised through the International Action Network on Small Arms. The only legally binding instrument is the UN Firearms Protocol, which was adopted in 2001 and entered into force in 2005. This Protocol requires states to enact national laws on three areas: criminal possession and use or guns; national licensing of guns; and marking and tracing of guns. The UN Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons was adopted in 2001, but is not legally binding. It calls for a range of measures at a national level, including the establishment of national commissions on small arms, a step that several states have undertaken. However, Article 36 believes that these international efforts have been inadequate and that a legally binding international instrument is required to hold governments to account on the control of guns and require national laws. This is essential so as to clamp down on the use of guns in crime and conflict, to reduce the numbers of weapons in circulation worldwide and to curb the trade in these weapons.

To learn more and take action in your country, visit the International Action Network on Small Arms.

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