An article appeared in yesterday's New York Times Magazine about the growing international profile and role of the National Rifle Association, discussing the organization's involvement in beating back a challenge to gun-ownership in Brazil. The article is more about the internationalization of the NRA than supportive of any particular position on gun rights, but it got me thinking about the (inevitable) backlash against the NRA and the international pro-gun lobby. The UN just recently convened a conference on the international trade of small arms and there has been a strong push to ban the sale and trade of small and light arms, the availability and affordability of which are blamed for fueling and spreading conflict around the world. But would a global gun ban be a good idea?
Stemming the flood of small arms on the global market may indeed have the effect of reducing some conflict, such as those in Africa between rebel groups that could find it difficult to continue their struggle in the absence of cheap and readily available weapons. But, there are plenty of easily identifiable unintended consequences as well. While warring rebel groups may find their capacity to commit violence lowered, so would groups struggling to protect themselves against brutal governments be less capable of resisting. Governments have ways of acquiring weapons (making gun themselves, for example) that are not always available to non-state actors. Let us not forget the disastrous consequences of the "neutral" arms embargo placed on the warring parties of the former Yugoslavia in the mid-1990s. Serbia, which was in possession of the vast majority of the former Yugoslavian Army, was in a much stronger position that Bosnia, which was unable to procure weapons to defend itself, thanks to the UN (which then compounded the problem by failing to live up to its offers of protection).
What about the victims of genocide? Wouldn't the poor Tutsis of Rwanda or those currently living in Darfur be better off if they could procure weapons and defend themselves? The international community isn't going to help them, and the governments trying to slaughter them are much better armed (or at least in the case of Rwanda, better organized). It's easy, living in a stable, modern world to forget the reasons why gun ownership can be vitally important as a tool of the weak to defend their rights against the powerful. So unless the UN and the rest of the international community is willing to defend those that cannot defend themselves against their brutal governments, there should be no global ban on small arms. Limiting the ability of governments to arms themselves may be a good thing; limiting the ability of peoples to do the same will likely have disastrous consequences.