– “… the bullet had lodged near the boy’s spine. And on the way there, it had ripped through and injured all of the following organs: his intestine, his pancreas, his spleen, his stomach, his diaphragm and his lung. Tissue in every one of these organs was damaged. Blood was leaking into his chest.”
This kind of total bodily destruction is what a single bullet, the projectile expelled out of the barrel of a firearm, can do to an individual. From Tijuana to Baltimore, from Cape Town to Caracas — this ghastly ripple of destruction is well-known to emergency room physicians in affected cities.
Bullets are the decisive accomplice in a sequence of conflating factors that enable armed violence. And the supply is vast: globally, ammunition is the most traded good within the small-arms categories documented in UN Comtrade. More disquieting, illicit ammunition proliferation, closely associated to unauthorized end-users for unauthorized use, remains understudied — hidden in the shadows of concealed distribution.
The collective impact of ammunition misuse, given its recurrence and cumulative effect, hinders development and sparks vicious cycles. It also clusters, spreads, and transmits, like a contagious disease. In fact, many cities suffer levels of lethal violence that surpass the World Health Organization epidemic threshold of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants. The world’s 50 most violent cities, spanning across ten Member States, suffer from at least three times the rate considered of epidemic proportions, according to Seguridad, Justicia y Paz, a non-governmental organization based in Mexico.
To combat the scourge of armed violence, UNIDIR’s 2020 Case Studies, ‘Monitoring and Diagnosing Ammunition Diversion, Trafficking and Misuse’, seek to provide original evidence to support local and national efforts and inform regional and international processes aimed at containing illicit ammunition proliferation. Containing such flows is likely to be an effective intervention in rapidly bringing down levels of lethal violence because ammunition is a consumable material that must be replenished once used, acting as the oxygen of armed violence. Cut off this oxygen and firearms are functionally sterile.
To do this, we will replicate the course of action an emergency room physician would take: deliver urgent care to gravely affected cases first and then elevate lessons learned to contain the epidemic.
Step 1: Focus on urgent care: We will focus our attention in non-conflict settings since over 80% of lethal violence occurs off battlefields, according to the Small Arms Survey. Most homicides are perpetrated with firearms, being bullet wounds the cause of death. Hence, ammunition proliferation, a phenomenon enabling lethal violence in non-conflict settings, will be the initial focus of our research.
Step 2: Monitor the wound: Zooming-in, our case studies are designed to monitor how bullets reached, or would have reached, victims of armed violence. The best source of primary data is to examine evidence from crime scenes, seizures from unauthorized users, confiscated unlawful transfers, and procurement, allocation, and marking records. These sources, in aggregation, will be used as the evidence base.
Step 3: Diagnose the extent of the damage: After building an evidence base, we will attempt to diagnose chronic ammunition diversion points, trafficking patterns, and trends enabling misuse. An accurate description of the problem builds the case for constructive action and determines the relation between the local damage and the armed violence epidemic.
Step 4: Prescribe corrective actions: By leveraging an evidence-based diagnosis, opportunities for policy reforms will come into focus. Since armed violence is context-specific and complex, suggested policy prescriptions will be tied to individual case studies.
Step 5: Contain the epidemic: Lastly, it is simply not enough to treat one or several gravely affected cases, if the epidemic of violence runs like a global contagious disease. As such, our research will provide lessons learned that can inform multilateral processes and spark a catalytic effect to counter vicious cycles. This will ensure that individual case studies act as building blocks for regional and international efforts against armed violence.
The success of this endeavour requires coordinated action by UN System partners, Member States, the entire national security sector, mayors, academics, and local organizations committed to reducing armed violence.
The challenge of containing illicit ammunition proliferation is like a global puzzle: it is solvable only when we piece our efforts together.
And it all starts by mapping the path of a single bullet.
Alfredo Malaret is a Research Associate, Conventional Arms Programme, United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.