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 You are in: Under Secretary for Arms Control and International Security > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Releases > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Fact Sheets > Bureau of Political-Military Affairs Fact Sheets (2006)
Fact Sheet
Bureau of Political-Military Affairs
Washington, DC
June 9, 2006

Actions by the United States to Stem the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

"Given the close links between terrorism, organized crime and drug trafficking, the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons has the potential to affect any country in the world at any time…Focused efforts to identify and curb the sources and methods of the illicit trade via robust export controls, law enforcement measures, and efforts to expeditiously destroy excess stocks and safeguard legitimate stocks from theft or illegal transfer are the best ways to attack the problem." -- U.S. Ambassador Robert G. Loftis at the Organization of American States’ Small Arms/Light Weapons Meeting, Washington, DC, April 12, 2005.

As the United States prepares to participate in the Conference to Review Progress Made in the Implementation of the Program of Action to Prevent, Combat and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects, at the United Nations from June 26 through July 7, 2006 (with the exception of July 4, Independence Day, which the UN observes), a review of the nature of the problem, and the relevant actions and accomplishments by the United States to date is in order.

The international illicit trade in military-grade small arms and light weapons (SA/LW) is the official focus of this Review Conference and must remain so if genuine progress is to be made in thwarting the true threat.  It is important to note that the UN General Assembly resolution establishing the conference explicitly states "that the scope of the Conference shall be the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects" (A/RES/54/54, section V, paragraph 2).

Some military assault rifles, light machine guns, and other assorted weapons that were prepared for destruction in Afghanistan by The HALO Trust as part of a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, assuring that they would never fall into the wrong hands.  CREDIT: The HALO Trust.


The ready availability of military-grade SA/LW to weak and failing states, criminals, and terrorists in the latter half of the 20th Century contributed to conflicts and lawlessness that collectively threatened lives, social stability, and the rule of law on a scale heretofore caused by major conventional wars. Countless millions have become refugees or otherwise displaced from their homes as a result of the conflicts exacerbated by illicit trafficking in and ineffective national controls over SA/LW. Such illicit trafficking also has had deleterious effects on nations that are at peace. At the outset of the 21st Century, these conditions still affect many nations.

What led to the proliferation of so many military-grade SA/LW in the wrong hands? A major factor was a byproduct from the weakening of the Soviet Union in the 1980s. The rise in inter-ethnic violence in the Soviet Republics as various minorities attempted to reclaim their freedom and national identity led to seizure and illegal transfer of arms from Soviet military stocks. The demise of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s during which the Republics declared independence and Eastern Europe regained complete self-determination, resulted in even greater seizure of Soviet arms stockpiles and near disappearance of effective controls over arms sales in much of the former Warsaw Pact area.

The seizure of SA/LW by rebellious and criminal groups from the stockpiles of weak and failed states in Africa (Liberia and Somalia, respectively, for example) and other regions, also contributed to a growth in lawlessness and strife. As conflicts in those states continued unabated, they were inevitably exacerbated by illicit arms transfers from outside sources, fueling the staying power of terrorist groups such as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in Sri Lanka and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).


Machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and assault rifles that were poorly secured and excess to Liberia’s legitimate self-defense needs are cut into scrap metal by Liberian workers using mechanical saws under a program managed by the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.  CREDIT: Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, U.S. Dept. of State.The United States has demonstrated its unrivaled commitment to countering the adverse effects of the international illicit trade in SA/LW through its national practices, Federal, State, and local laws, U.S. international assistance programs, and through vigorous diplomatic engagement around the world, a record that stretches back many years even before the 2001 Program of Action. U.S. Department of State analysis of the United States laws and practices in this regard, relative to those of other countries, clearly indicates that the United States is one of the few nations that have met its commitment to the Program of Action.

A SYSTEM OF EFFECTIVE LAWS and PROCEDURES: The United States has extensive laws and regulations, such as the Gun Control Act, the National Firearms Act, the Arms Export Control Act, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), that address SA/LW production, export and import, brokering, illicit possession, illicit trade, and illicit manufacturing. For example, all firearms in the United States, by law, are marked at the time of licensed manufacture and import. In addition, the United States has some of the strongest laws and record of implementation in the world concerning third-party transfers of weapons. As a result, the United States is one of only 16 countries cited by the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) to have achieved full compliance on all "Laws and Procedures" related to Program of Action implementation.

The United States takes a ‘cradle-to-grave’ approach to SA/LW, meaning that anyone who wishes to engage in manufacturing, brokering, or exporting defense articles must be registered with the U.S. Government.  All exports are regulated and are subject to close scrutiny of the end-use and end-users of the items.  Moreover, most export approvals are subject to strict conditions designed to ensure the export is used only for legitimate purposes.  U.S. controls over defense articles continue after export through strict controls on retransfers and changes in end-use.  The United States conducts end-use checks to insure compliance with these restrictions through both the U.S. Department of State’s “Blue Lantern” program and the Department of Defense’s “Golden Sentry” program.  Compliance is enforced through significant civil and criminal enforcement fines and penalties.  The annual “Blue Lantern” report to the United States Congress is available at www.pmddtc.state.gov/reference.htm#reports.

The United States has used its national authorities to combat this problem even prior to 2001. It is one of only eight countries since 2001 that have reviewed existing national laws governing SA/LW production, export, import, and brokering as well as laws on criminalization of illicit possession, trade, and manufacturing. U.S. Federal authorities have worked to enhance domestic enforcement mechanisms by expanding law enforcement training for State and local law enforcement authorities, and by increasing resources addressed at combating illicit trade. This has resulted in increased arrests and prosecutions, such as a recent case in which a U.S. citizen pleaded guilty to conspiracy to import illicit MANPADS.

TRANSPARENCY: The United States is one of 22 states that publish annual reports on domestic arms exports. This report, the Foreign Assistance Act’s Section 655 Annual Military Assistance Reports to the U.S. Congress, may be downloaded from www.pmdtc.state.gov/reference.htm#reports. The United States also submits annual reports on its exports of small arms and light weapons, including MANPADS, as part of the Wassenaar Arrangement, as well as reports on its imports and exports of SA/LW as part of the OSCE Annual Exchange of Information.

DESTRUCTION: The United States is one of 36 countries that regularly destroys its surplus SA/LW. The U.S. Department of Defense Defense Reutilization and Marketing Office accounts for all nationally-held destroyed SA/LW through an electronic database.

A batch of SA-7b MANPADS discovered in an unguarded shed mixed in with excess small arms and light weapons in a remote area of Sudan, is removed during an arms destruction operation carried out by MAG (Mines Advisory Group) for the U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement.  Until their discovery, a flimsy padlock was all that secured these MANPADS and the other weapons.  CREDIT: © Sean Sutton/MAG 2006; magclearsmines.org.ASSISTANCE TO OTHERS: The United States is one of at least 22 countries to provide donor assistance to other countries on SA/LW abatement, and is a leader in this regard. To date, the United States has provided a total of over $27 million to destroy approximately 900,000 small arms and light weapons and over 80 million pieces of ammunition in 25 countries, a record of assistance unmatched by any other nation. The United States has given special emphasis to preventing MANPADS from being used to endanger civil aviation and has succeeded in destroying over 18,600 of these very dangerous weapons so far in 17 countries. The dedicated U.S. budget for these activities has increased almost fourfold since the Program of Action has been in effect. In 2006 alone, expenditures by the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs to destroy SA/LW, including MANPADS, are nearly $8.7 million, having tripled in only two years. It should be noted that the United States was assisting other countries to better secure their SA/LW and destroy excess SA/LW prior to 2001, a clear indicator that the United States was serious about the issue even before it was taken up by the United Nations. Regardless of the outcome of the Review Conference, the United States will continue to provide such assistance to others in 2006 and beyond.

The United States has offered technical assistance to other countries to work collaboratively in the development of stronger export/import control and related border security systems. The Office of Export Control Cooperation in the Office of Export Control Cooperation in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation operates a robust Export Control and Related Border Security (EXBS) program, which funds much of the training and equipment aimed at helping countries develop or strengthen national export/import policies and control systems consistent with international standards.

The U.S. Department of Defense Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs jointly conduct a comprehensive program at the request of other countries on physical security and arms stockpile management, to include assessment, technical advice, and consultation of best practices. To date, such assistance has been provided to 26 countries around the world.

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) in the U.S. Department of Justice offers a variety of training courses related to firearms and ballistic identification and firearms tracing for international law enforcement professionals. ATF continues to provide tracing services to foreign law enforcement officials, including conducting over 10,000 traces for over 50 countries. In FY 2005 alone, ATF trained 944 members of the international law enforcement community, to include courses in firearms identification and trafficking investigative techniques. ATF has leveraged new technologies such as "eTrace", a web-based electronic trace program, to more effectively assist law enforcement partners to combat illicit transnational trafficking. ATF also processed over 10,000 requests for permanent importation of firearms into the United States.

BROKERING: The United States is one of 32 countries that regulate the activities of brokers of SA/LW. All United States citizens and permanent residents engaging in brokering activity anywhere that involves any defense article must register with the U.S. Department of State’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) and must seek authorization for certain brokering transactions. Foreign persons in the United States who are engaged in brokering activity involving any defense article or who are involved in the brokering of U.S.-origin defense articles anywhere in the world are also under the jurisdiction of the United States and must register and seek authorization for certain brokering transactions.

MARKING: The United States is one of 33 countries that require all licensed importers to mark arms and is one of 50 countries that obligate domestic manufacturers to mark SA/LW at the time of production.

TRACING: The United States has the world’s best tracing mechanism and a proven record of cooperation with others, being one of 42 countries to work actively in the tracing of SA/LW. With respect to U.S. military SA/LW, the U.S. Department of Defense maintains a central register administered by the U.S. Army Logistical Activity that is responsible for the serialization and accountability of the U.S. armed services weapons. As indicated in the "Assistance to Others" section of this fact sheet, the United States, through the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, receives and processes many tracing requests annually from around the world, more than any other nation.

REPORTS TO THE UN: The United States is of one of 16 countries that have submitted three or more annual reports on national implementation of the Program of Action to the UN Department of Disarmament Affairs during the past four years.


  • The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs creates international conditions conducive to peace, stability, and prosperity by curbing the illicit proliferation of conventional weapons of war such as light automatic weapons and rocket propelled grenades, and removing and destroying others, such as persistent landmines and abandoned stocks of munitions, that remain and pose hazards after the cessation of armed conflict. 

  • The U.S. Department of State’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC) in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs controls the export and temporary import of defense articles and defense services covered by the United States Munitions List. Among its primary missions: reviewing and adjudicating license applications for exports of defense articles and services; handling matters related to defense trade compliance and enforcement; and providing reports to the U.S. Congress and the public on United States defense trade. It also manages the "Blue Lantern" end-use monitoring program. 

  • The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Conventional Arms Threat Reduction in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation has lead responsibility within that Bureau for all matters related to conventional weapons, as well as for dual-use items and technologies that warrant controls because of their nexus with conventional weapons, and with U.S. security policies related to commercial remote sensing. 

  • The U.S. Department of State’s Office of Export Controls Cooperation in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation formulates, coordinates, and strengthens U.S. nonproliferation export control assistance, including promotion of bilateral and multilateral coordination of assistance. 

  • The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives in the U.S. Department of Justice pursues an integrated regulatory and enforcement strategy with regard to SA/LW. Its investigative priorities focus on armed violent offenders and career criminals, narcotics traffickers, narco-terrorists, violent gangs, and domestic and international arms traffickers. 

  • The U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) supports the United States’ SA/LW abatement efforts through its On-Site Inspection directorate's Conventional Weapons Branch (OSAE), providing expert assistance and technical expertise to help other countries to secure their SA/LW and MANPADS, and to destroy excess stockpiles. DTRA coordinates with the Department of State, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the Joint Staff, and the appropriate U.S. Regional Combatant Commands to plan and conduct assessment missions in countries that request SA/LW assistance with little or no cost to the host nation.


Q. What outcome to the Review Conference does the United States desire?

A. The United States plans to go into the 2006 Review Conference with a positive agenda and seeks the following:

  • Identification of obstacles to the implementation of the 2001 Program of Action. 
  • Implementation of the recently negotiated SA/LW marking and tracing instrument as well as the UN Firearms Protocol. 
  • Effective export/import controls and their enforcement, including consideration of the United Kingdom’s goals under its Transfer Control Initiative. 
  • Continued bilateral and multilateral partnerships to secure SA/LW stockpiles and destroy excess stocks of weapons.

In conclusion, the United States measures progress on the SA/LW issue based on forward movement that genuinely enhances peace and security as envisioned by the UN Charter.

Q. Does the United States support the United Kingdom’s Transfer Control Initiative?

A. Yes. The United States, in principle, supports the goals of the Transfer Control Initiative. Effective export and import controls are vital to any successful effort to mitigate the problems of illicit SA/LW trade. The United States looks forward to further discussing its specifics at the Review Conference.

Q. Besides the 2001 Program of Action, are there any other models that countries can draw from to strengthen their arms export control systems?

A. Yes. The United States’ body of laws and practices is one such model. The basic documents of the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Best Practices manuals of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) also provide good sources on which to base laws and regulations. The 2000 OSCE Document on Small Arms and Light Weapons (SA/LW Document) established a set of norms, principles, and measures aimed at fostering responsible behavior with regard to the transfer of SA/LW. Recognizing the importance of additional norms related to arms export controls, the OSCE subsequently adopted the Wassenaar Arrangement’s export controls for MANPADS and established standard elements of end-user certificates and principles on the control of brokering of SA/LW. The OSCE also developed a set of Best Practice Guides to complement the SA/LW Document, including one guide specifically focused on export control. The United States also participated actively in efforts by the Organization of American States (OAS) to develop Model Regulations concerning the legal international trade in firearms and the regulation of brokers.

Q. What is the United States position on including in the Program of Action international regulations on civilian ownership and use of firearms?

A. The United States will oppose any proposal that would infringe or restrict the current ability of civilians in the United States to lawfully sell, acquire, possess, or use SA/LW or to engage in SA/LW manufacture or commerce that is consistent with U.S. law. Furthermore, the 2001 Program of Action does not address lawful civilian ownership or use of firearms nor should this new issue be introduced to it. Rather, the Program of Action deals only with illicit international trafficking in SA/LW and its focus must remain on such trafficking. Regulation of civilian ownership and use should be determined solely by duly-elected national parliaments and consistent with their countries’ respective constitutions.

Q. Will the Review Conference’s proceedings on the 2001 Program of Action affect the rights of Americans?

A. No. No outcome of the Review Conference can or will alter U.S. law or infringe upon the constitutional rights of Americans. Again, the 2001 UN Program of Action is a political document that focuses strictly on the international illicit trade in SA/LW, and not on civilian firearms use or ownership. It is not a treaty that imposes legally-binding obligations upon states. The document urges UN Member States to secure their national stockpiles of small arms and light weapons, which frequently are sources of arms and profit for terrorists, insurgents, and organized crime, and improve their export control regimes. The Review Conference seeks to evaluate implementation of the Program of Action by Member States among which, we should note, the United States has one of the best records. The Review Conference and Program of Action are part and parcel of U.S. efforts to prevent terrorists, criminals, and insurgents from gaining access to arms and do not touch upon the rights of Americans.

Q. What is the United States position on re-opening the Program of Action and introducing new initiatives to it?

A. The United States does not support the notion of re-opening the Program of Action to new initiatives. The parameters of the Program of Action have already been agreed upon and have a wide reach. States should focus on implementing existing provisions such as export controls (including controls on brokers), destruction of surplus and obsolete SA/LW, and stockpile security, to name a few. Attempts to expand the Program’s mandate would detract from implementation of the goals we set in 2001 – many of which are, unfortunately, still not met.

Q. Will the United States agree to discuss controls on ammunition or explosives under the Program of Action? If not, why not?

A. No. The United States does not consider the Program of Action the appropriate forum to discuss ammunition or explosives. The Program of Action’s purpose is to address illicit trafficking in SA/LW. Ammunition was specifically left out of the negotiating mandate, which all participating states agreed to by consensus. Applying SA/LW marking and record-keeping standards to ammunition is not a cost-effective or feasible approach to combat illicit trafficking nor does it satisfy key concerns regarding the movement of ammunition from manufacturers to conflict zones. Furthermore, ammunition is a high-volume, expendable commodity, whereas SA/LW are durable and can be used repeatedly over decades. The best approach to ammunition is to take practical steps to ensure its legitimate use, such as the destruction of surplus stocks, enhanced import/export licensing regimes, improved border security, tighter stockpile security, and better stockpile management practices.

Q. What is the United States view on banning the transfer of SA/LW to all non-state actors?

A. The United States opposed such a proposal at the Program of Action negotiations in 2001 and will continue to do so. Such a proposal would prevent assistance to an oppressed non-state group defending itself from a genocidal government. The key issue is to determine responsible and irresponsible end-users, not whether the recipient is a government or a non-governmental actor. Effective export/import controls and attention to stockpile security would address many of the concerns that some states raise with respect to non-state actors.

Q. What is the United States view on the role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) at the Review Conference?

A. The United States believes that NGO participation should be consistent with their participation in past Program of Action-related meetings, as laid out in the current Rules of Procedure. The United States as well as some other delegations will have non-governmental representation on their delegations.

Q. How much influence have NGOs had in shaping U.S. policy for this Conference or in shaping the U.S. delegation?

A. The United States is a democracy in which all citizens and private groups have the right to make their views known and for those views to be heard and weighed in decisions made by the Executive and Legislative branches of the U.S. Government.

Q. Will the United States agree to continue the Program of Action Review Process?

A. The United States does not support the idea of mandatory Review Conferences or for that matter, meetings such as the Biennial Meeting of States, as they have not produced tangible results.

The United States does support effective bilateral and multilateral activities that would make substantial contributions to combating the illicit trafficking of SA/LW. The task of the Review Conference should be to determine what activities have contributed to this effort, and what activities have failed to make concrete contributions or make effective use of resources. An honest assessment of the last five years will lead to the conclusion that effective follow-on action requires commitment on the part of states to meet agreed-upon obligations and serious engagement in regional bodies such as the OSCE, the OAS, and others.

One area for follow-on that the United States feels is particularly important involves an increased sharing of information related to cooperation and assistance. United States funding for SA/LW destruction efforts has tripled in the past two years to almost $9 million per year. Similar U.S. increases in funding and focus have occurred in other related areas as well.

The United States stands ready to do more to assist countries in their efforts to destroy surplus weapons of war, enhance stockpile security measures, improve border controls, and implement effective import and export control legislation. The United States is also in the preliminary stages of working with UNICEF to develop education campaigns to address the dangers of military weaponry and would be prepared to consider additional work related to victim assistance and rehabilitation.

In all of these areas, however, it should be noted that while the United States, as well as many other states, could provide more assistance, it has not been receiving clear and solid requests for such aid. The United States finds it disconcerting that some states argue for an ever expanding Program of Action, yet fail to meet their current commitments or to seek assistance to solve known problems.

Q. Does the U.S. support stricter global Arms Brokering norms?

A. Yes. The United States brokering law is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and effective arms brokering system in the world. We welcome international efforts to improve the regulation of arms brokers and their activities, particularly with regard to the many countries worldwide that have few if any such controls.

Q. Will Arms Brokering be included in this instrument?

A. No. The UN General Assembly determined in October 2004 that the issue of brokering should be addressed comprehensively after negotiations on marking and tracing and after this Review Conference for the 2001 Program of Action are concluded. That being said, it should be noted that the United States is one of only 32 countries that has specific controls over brokering of SA/LW.

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