Arms trafficking, also known as gunrunning, is broadly defined as the illicit trade of contraband small arms and ammunition, which constitutes part of a broad range of illegal activities often associated with transnational criminal organizations. The illegal trade of small arms, unlike other organized crime commodities, is more closely associated with exercising power in communities instead of achieving economic gain. Scholars estimate illegal arms transactions amount to over US$1 billion annually.
To keep track of imports and exports of several of the most dangerous armament categories, the United Nations, in 1991, created a Register for Conventional Arms, however participation is not compulsory and lacks comprehensive data in regions outside of Europe. Africa, due to a prevalence of corrupt officials and loosely enforced trade regulations, is a region with extensive illicit arms activity. In a resolution to complement the Register with legally binding obligations, a Firearms Protocol was incorporated into the UN Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, which requires states to improve systems that control trafficked ammunition and firearms.
The 1999 Report of the UN Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms provides a more refined and precise definition, which has become internationally accepted. This distinguishes between small arms (revolvers and self-loading pistols, rifles and carbines, submachine guns, assault rifles, and light machine guns), which are weapons designed for personal use, and light weapons (heavy machine guns, hand-held under-barrel and mounted grenade launchers, portable anti-aircraft guns, portable anti-tank guns, recoilless rifles, portable launchers of anti-aircraft missile systems, and mortars of calibres less than 100 mm), which are designed for use by several persons serving as a unit. Ammunition and explosives also form an integral part of small arms and light weapons used in conflict.
Although arms trafficking is widespread in regions of political turmoil, it is not limited to such areas, and for example, in South Asia, an estimated 63 million guns have been trafficked into India and Pakistan.
The suppression of gunrunning is one of the areas of increasing interest in the context of international law. Examples of past and current gunrunning include:
The civil war in Sierra Leone lasted from 1991-2002, and left 75,000 people dead. Arms Trafficking played a significant role in this conflict. Both small and large arms were shipped to all sides in both Sierra Leone, and Liberia from outside actors. Small arms being any handheld gun (pistol, assault rifle, sub machine gun, shotgun,) and other items such as grenades, claymores, knives, machetes, etc. Large arms indicates large amounts of explosives, missiles, light machine guns, mortars, anti tank missiles, tanks, planes, etc. During this time a civil war was occurring in nearby Liberia. The Liberian Civil Wars took place from 1989 through 1997. The war was between the existing government and the National Patriotic Front. Leader of the National Patriotic front of Liberia, Charles Taylor, helped to create the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) in Sierra Leone. Taylor was the recipient of thousands of illegally trafficked arms from easter Europe (mostly the Ukraine). Taylor then sold some of these weapons to the RUF in exchange for diamonds. President of Burkina Faso, Blaise Compaore, "directly facilitated Liberia's arms-for-diamonds trade" with Liberia and Sierra Leone. Compaore would give guns to Taylor, who would then sell them to the RUF in exchange for diamonds. These blood diamonds would then be sold back to Compaore for more guns. The cyclical exchange allowed Compaore the ability to deny directly sending arms to Sierra Leone.
The Liberian government received arms through an elaborate from company in Guinea. The arms were intended to be shipped (legally) from Uganda to Slovakia. However, the arms were diverted to Guinea as a part of "an elaborate bait and switch." Additionally the British government "encouraged Sandline International, a private security firm and non state entity, to supply arms and ammunitions to the loyal forces of the exiled government of President Kabbah." Sandline proceeded 35 tons of arms from Bulgaria, to Kabbah's forces.
Kimberly Thachuk and Karen Saunders argue that arms trafficking is no different from any other illegal business in their work Under the Radar: Airborne Arms Trafficking Operations in Africa. Traffickers first need a headquarters, or somewhere to base their operations. A headquarters needs several aspects to make it an ideal place to traffic weapons. First, the headquarters should have appropriate infrastructure. For a weapons trafficking this would include a landing strip for both importation and exportation. Additionally, warehouses are needed to "store product awaiting delivery." Once the product has arrived and been stored it needs to be delivered to the customer, thus, the headquarters should be in somewhat of a central location near each customer. This is not the primary reason many traffickers choose Africa certainly has multitudes of unoccupied land that can be used by traffickers, as is asserted by Thachuk and Saunders.
Physical space is important but the rules and regulations of said space are also relevant. Traffickers look for places with corrupt, supply side, officials that can either be bribed, or blackmailed. This allows the trafficker to "circumvent the regulatory and oversight systems" put in place by the government. Furthermore, a "lax financial system" is key so the large amounts of money moved by the trafficker are not seen as suspicious.
Thachuk and Saunders finish their argument, a stable, and highly centralized government, is important. They then point out that 10 different African countries have leaders that have been in power for more than 20 years, which they argue meets the criteria a highly centralized and stable government.
Since 1996, countries throughout Europe have taken notice of arms trafficking. Europe has been an overall large exporter of illicit weapons with the United Kingdom, Germany, and France in the national lead for the most exports. Imports to Europe in from 2004-2013 have decreased by 25%, with the United Kingdom importing the most overall in Europe. The firearms that are imported and passed around are commonly small arms and lighter weapons (SALW) compared to large machinery, such as tanks and aircraft. The SALW bought in Europe tends to be secondhand weapons that are cheap and regularly available. Gun cultures, such as in Germany, where the "taken-for-granted cultural practice of carrying a handgun," increases illicit SALW because guns are viewed as a way to enhance masculinity and status. In 2000, the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) started on regional solutions and security measures to address the firearms trafficking problem.
The total value of the global arms market is estimated around $60 billion a year, with around $8 billion attributed to pistols, rifles, machine guns, and bullets.
Due to a lack of legal transparency, estimating the market value of the arms trafficking industry is sometimes difficult. In 2001 alone, the value of legal Small Arms and Light Weapons exports was US$2.4 Billion. After being processed by customs, that number increases to somewhere between US$5-7 Billion, according to Small Arms and Light Weapons (1994-2001). An additional 10-20% (US$1 Billion) are suspected to be added to that number from black market transactions. The Kalashnikov AK-47 is the most appealing weapon to the illegal weapons trade due to its low cost. With a surplus of AK-47s flooding the market from post-cold war armies, the prices of this firearm sunk as low as US$15 in 2000. Trends have shown that the price of the AK-47 have stayed constant in countries with current civil wars, while stable countries prices for the AK-47 have been on the rise. Even biker gangs have gotten in on profitable arms trafficking. United States Law enforcement agencies started investigating bike gangs in the late 90s, and started classifying them as organized criminal organizations. This was mainly due to the fact that they were able to get control of the prostitution market and the smuggling of stolen goods such as weapons, motorcycles, and car parts.
In the international criminal scholarly community, rational choice theory is commonly referenced in explanations as to why individuals engage in and justify criminal activity. According to Jana Arsovska and Panos Kostakos, leading scholars on organized crime, the causes of arms trafficking are not solely based on rational choice theory but rather have been more closely linked to the intimacy of one's personal social networks as well as the "perception of risks, effort and rewards in violating criminal laws."