The Straits Times (Singapore)
MAY 9 1997

UN survey finds firearms a menace

By R. Senthilnathan in Vienna

A15-YEAR-OLD school boy near Vienna on Monday managed to demonstrate easily what just hours ago an international team of experts tried to do with their words and charts: that almost every country in the world has some kind of problem with the misuse of firearms, and governments have to improve their existing record-keeping, firearm issuing and storage systems to tackle the menace.

Armed with his fathers pistol, the young boy ran amok in his school, killing a teacher and seriously wounding another student. He was later arrested, and the police said the boy claimed he was angry that girls were not casting an eye on him.

The experts team presented its conclusions and recommendations after analysing the information sent in to a detailed questionnaire prepared by a group of international experts on behalf of the United Nations. The questionnaire was prepared to conduct the first-ever global survey on firearms.

The results, which were presented at the ongoing UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Vienna, are preliminary, and the final results, along with their recommendations, are to be presented at the end of this year, Mr James Hayes, who co-ordinates the project, said on Monday.

A total of 46 countries, representing 3.7 billion people or nearly two-thirds of the world population, have so far sent in their replies, said Mr Hayes, who is the co-ordinator of the Firearm Control Task Force of the Canadian justice department. In Asia, seven countries -- China, India, Japan, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam -- have so far answered the questionnaire.

The experts say the geographic distribution of the 46 countries mean they are not truly representative for the world, but that they do nevertheless demonstrate the increasing menace of firearms and how countries are trying to tackle the issue.

The background to the survey was done by the global congress on crime prevention and criminal justice, which was held in Cairo two years ago. Towards the latter part of that year, the first serious work on the survey began by the UN office dealing with crime issues: the Vienna-based Division of Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.

Landmines and other armaments were excluded from the scope of the survey which covered only the regulation of civilian owned firearms, leaving out the military weapons.

The survey was tested in three countries -- Canada, Japan and Singapore, and the questionnaire was modified.

The survey found that most of the countries allow the ownership of firearms for hunting, target shooting, collection and for protecting person and property.

Two countries, Luxembourg and Malaysia, totally prohibit the possession, export and import of both long guns and handguns. In two countries, the Czech Republic and Romania, there are no restrictions at all.

The term-long gun includes rifles and shotguns while a handgun is any firearm with a short stock and is designed to be held and fired by a single hand.

The availability of firearms differs from country, ranging 0.1 per 1,000 people in Uganda to 411 per 1,000 in Finland.

Finland also topped another list, with half its households reportedly owning at least one firearm. Just over 40 per cent of the US households possess firearms while in Malaysia it is less than 1 per cent.

If the present firearm regulations are already weak, matters are made worse by the increasing illegal manufacture, import and export of them, the survey found.

Judging from the descriptive case study information provided by the respondents, there appears to be a problem involving firearms being transported illegally through one or more countries between the time of their manufacture and their ultimate recovery by law enforcement officers, the report said.

Singapore, however, reported it had no problem in this area. On the other hand, Brazil and Germany, reported they have a serious problem here.

Not all countries possess accurate information about deaths caused by firearms, but generally about five people per 100,000 people fall victim to firearms -- either through suicide or homicide -- every year, the survey found.

Fortunately, the survey found, the growing menace of firearms has not gone without notice by the governments. Twenty-five states claimed they have modified their firearm regulations during the past five years while in some countries, such as Brazil, India and South Africa, major reforms are planned.

But Mr Hayes and his experts group also want more to be done. They want member states to be encouraged to improve their present system of record keeping, which should include appropriate markings by the manufacturers so as to enable identification of the weapon and its owner later, better safety and storage systems and an improved licensing system to prevent those who are considered to be potential misusers from getting firearms.

According to Mr Daryl Smeaton, an Australian official in the experts team, experience in his own country suggested that the reduction in the availability of firearms caused a decrease in suicides.

The experts group expects work to done in the coming years on a model agreement to combat illicit trafficking in firearms and extend the scope of the survey to include explosives.

However, fighting firearms is not an easy battle. In many countries, the firearms manufacturers as well as users have strong lobby.

Organisations like the US National Rifle Association (NRA), which holds consultative status at the UN as a non-governmental organisation, are opposed vehemently to any sort of restriction on firearms.

The writer covers the activities of UN agencies and international bodies based in Vienna for The Straits Times.

Copyright © 1997 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.