There have never been so many firearms in circulation in the world

Fire arms.


Text by: Arnaud Jouve Follow

12 mins

Today, according to recent estimates, there are more than a billion firearms in circulation in the world.

The exact number is impossible to determine even if the majority of their top secret business is legal.

Despite the opacity of this sector, where economic interests, human rights and international commitments are sometimes contradictory, everything seems to indicate that the world arms trade continues to increase and that there has never been so many weapons. in circulation.


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It is very difficult to give an exact figure on the number of firearms in circulation in the world.

But several recent assessments, like that of the

Small Arms Survey

, an independent research project attached to the Institute for Higher International and Development Studies in Geneva, Switzerland, indicates that there are more than a billion firearms in circulation around the world.

This figure, calculated over the year 2017, would be broken down into 857 million weapons (85%) in the hands of civilians, 133 million (13%) in military arsenals and 23 million (2%) within military organizations. law enforcement (police, etc.).

For this research institute, this global stock has increased over the past decade largely due to civilian assets, which rose from 650 million in 2006 to 857 million in 2017.

On the other hand, according to

Amnesty International

and several NGOs specializing in arms control, another important indicator is the scale of the arms trade which has been steadily increasing since 2013, at least in its visible part.

In this opaque sector, the illegal market is difficult to estimate as well as that of the majority of the legal arms trade where the cult of defense secrecy reigns.

According to the

Uppsala Conflict Data Program

, a conflict data collection program at Uppsala University in Sweden, in 2017 the top 100 arms exporting firms on the planet sold for $ 398.2 billion .

Arms dealer in Fort Worth, Texas, USA.

(Photo: Reuters)

What the legal market says


Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)

, an independent international research institute on conflicts, arms, their control and disarmament, provides figures in its 2020 annual report that confirm this scale of the arms trade.

In comparison with the period 2005-2009, the report indicates a first rather significant increase between 2010 and 2014 and a second a little less strong, but progressive and significant between 2015 and 2019. This last increase is mainly linked to a very strong increase in money transfers with the Middle East where there have been more than 61% of imports, with Saudi Arabia in particular which accounted for 12% of world imports.

Saudi Arabia, India, Egypt, Australia and Algeria together account for around 35% of world imports.

As for exporting countries, still over the 2015-2019 period, SIPRI ranks the United States in the lead: they alone represent 36% of the world arms trade.

They export to 96 countries and 22% of these US exports go to Saudi Arabia.

The second most important country is Russia, despite a decrease, over this period, of 18%, due in large part to a decrease in Russian imports into India, even though Russian exports have increased to Egypt and Iraq.

After the United States and Russia in third place, France achieves 7.9% of world trade with a 72% increase in its exports to Egypt, Qatar and India.

And further in this ranking are Germany and China.

The opaque practices of international trade

The gun trade is opaque and pits state secrecy against many attempts at transparency.


Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security

 (GRIP), an independent research center in Belgium, also sometimes denounces the behavior of industries which it accuses of hiding behind defense secrecy to justify practices that are difficult acceptable in democratic states.

Because very often, there is what is official and what is unofficial.

For example, the Firearms Convention and Protocol, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in May 2001, and the Arms Trade Treaty adopted in April 2013, stipulate " 

the need to prevent and eliminate illicit trade in conventional arms and prevent their diversion into illicit trade or for unauthorized end use, or to unauthorized end users, in particular for the purposes of the commission of terrorist acts

 ”and fixes d '' general rules on the transfer of weapons to prevent their diversion.

But the reality is sometimes, in many theaters of crisis, very different.

Weapons produced sometimes kill civilians on the other side of the globe despite the rules of international law, and in some cases exports to "sensitive countries" are knowingly done.

Amnesty International, in a report published in February 2019, documented, for example, the presence of a whole series of weapons from Western countries in Yemen when they should not be there a priori.

As Stan Braban, deputy director of GRIP comments, “ 

in the war in Yemen, Belgian weapons were found which were initially exported to probably the United Arab Emirates and which ended up in the hands of an armed group, the Giants Brigades which has more than questionable practices in terms of respect for international humanitarian law and the law of war.

So even in official commerce, there are weapons that escape the control that should be carried out.

It was the same with the weapons of the Islamic State organization, where we found a fairly impressive arsenal of almost all the producing countries on the planet, including European countries with considerable volumes


Separatist fighters in southern Yemen target pro-government forces in Abyan province on May 11, 2020 © AFP

To make the practices of this trade more transparent and more democratic, many attempts have been initiated in Europe and since 2010 have had some success.

In France, in recent days, the Maire-Tabarot report calls for France to catch up in terms of parliamentary control over arms sales compared to its European partners such as Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. .

In Britain, a London court ruled that British exports to Saudi Arabia were against the law, asking the country's highest authorities to suspend operations first and cancel export licenses to Saudi Arabia.

Illegal circuits: a "gray market" in armaments

Arms circulate around the world, far beyond conflict zones.

This proliferation is the direct cause of numerous forms of violence: homicides, torture, rape, arbitrary arrests, attacks on the freedom to demonstrate and even to express oneself.

According to Amnesty International, nearly 500,000 people are killed by firearms each year, whether or not in times of conflict.

Because the violence linked to the use of weapons is multifaceted.

The trafficking of supplying arms and ammunition to fighting groups, criminal associations, states or individuals, while violating international or national regulations on arms sales, remains unclear.

This illegal market is supplied on the “gray arms market” mainly by diversion of national stocks or by opportunistic supply in conflict or post-conflict zones.

According to the UN, arms trafficking is one of the four most lucrative illegal activities, along with drug trafficking, drug trafficking and prostitution.

In October 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) for the first time published statistics on illicit trafficking in firearms which are now available to the public via

the database. data from UNODC


An international arms trafficking market estimated at over 1,200 billion dollars per year.

More than 5,000 illegally held weapons were returned to Australian authorities in 2017 .. Peter PARKS / AFP

International arrangements

Since the beginning of the 21st century, two important United Nations treaties have governed the illicit trade and trafficking of arms.

The Protocol against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Their Parts and Components and Ammunition (more generally known as the “Firearms Protocol”), adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in May 2001, and the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organized Crime, which entered into force in July 2005. A decade later in 2013, another instrument was added to this international mechanism: the Arms Trade Treaty, operational since December 24, 2014.

Firearms being defined by the Protocol with the following formula: "

Firearm" means any handgun with a barrel which expels, is designed to expel or can be easily converted to expel a shot, bullet or projectile by the action of an explosive, excluding antique firearms or their replicas.

Old firearms and their replicas will be defined in accordance with national legislation.

However, old firearms must in no case include firearms manufactured after 1899.


The two instruments, the Convention and the Protocol, on the one hand, and the Treaty, on the other hand, seek to promote international cooperation to address the challenges posed by the illicit trafficking of arms and its negative consequences for peace. , security and socioeconomic development.

The Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and the Firearms Protocol aim to promote cooperation to combat and prevent transnational organized crime more effectively, while the Treaty has a broader scope, since it deals specifically with the international humanitarian law, arms reduction and human rights.

A fragile treaty to consolidate

This treaty, signed by 141 countries, including recently by China (31 have not yet ratified it), links the arms trade to human rights issues for the first time.

This treaty basically says that if there is a risk that weapons will be used to commit serious human rights violations (genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes), these weapons must not be exported.

This legal framework, however, is still fragile, as Stan Brabant of GRIP explains: “ 

It is an essential treaty which is quite young, which entered into force in a sometimes a little uneven way.

Because there are countries which play the game and which are a bit of an example like the Nordic countries, the Netherlands and then countries which do not play the game, and here I am thinking in particular of France, the French-speaking part from Belgium, to Italy


Regarding the United States, which is a signatory to the Arms Trade Treaty, but has not yet ratified it, according to Stan Brabant “ 

there are clearly under the Trump administration volumes of arms exports to the United States. Saudi Arabia which are very important, while we know that the weapons that are now sent to a country like Saudi Arabia are very likely to be used in the conflict in Yemen, with extremely serious consequences in terms of violation of international humanitarian law.

So there is still really a problem of applying this treaty.

This treaty is excellent, from a legal point of view it is really a very strong step forward, but in terms of its implementation, there is really still work



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