UN study says small arms fire deadliest

Small-arms fire kills as many as three times more people than previously thought, UN. report says.

Small arms fire kills as many as three times more people than previously thought, according to a United Nations report published on Monday.

The study found that deaths from small arms, such as pistols, rifles, machine guns, mortars and hand-held rocket launchers, likely totalled 80,000 to 108,000 for 2003.

Previous estimates of 27,000 to 51,000 deaths a year were based largely on government and media reporting on wars, which the study said is often inaccurate because reporters are unable to enter war zones to verify reports.

There is little independent data on the issue, said the study conducted by the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Switzerland.

"The survey tried to apply scientific methodologies such as violence clustering and epidemiology studies for specific conflicts in Afghanistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Iraq, Kosovo and Peru and we found that journalists typically report only about one quarter of direct conflict deaths," institute spokesman Emile LeBrun told CBC News Online.

"The total number of direct conflict deaths is probably two to four times higher than what gets reported," LeBrun said.

Indirect deaths number in millions

The study also found that small arms account for between 60 and 90 per cent of conflict deaths depending on the type of war.

"These are the real weapons of mass destruction," Finnish Ambassador Pasi Paokallio said in releasing the report at the start of a weeklong U.N. conference on stemming illegal small arms trade. The U.N. began a crackdown in 2001 on the illicit trade estimated at $1 billion US a year.

Indirect deaths from conflicts where small arms are the main weapons number in the millions when considering countries such as the Democractic Republic of Congo or Sudan, noted the report.

"These people die from dysentery, malaria and other preventable diseases when they lose access to health care and essential services as they flee their towns and villages," the authors wrote.

"Though people may not die from bullet wounds, weapons are ultimately responsible for their deaths."

Illegal small arms trade nets $1 billion a year

Annual legal trade in small arms is conservatively estimated at $4 billion US although few countries report their imports and exports, said the study, which is in its fifth year.

The report recommended that an international system be set up to trace weapons sales and keep tabs on government arsenals that are sometimes pilfered by rebels and rarely retreived even after hostilities cease.

"The task of post-conflict rebuilding and reconciliation is made much more difficult by the large numbers of arms that remain in circulation in most conflict areas," head researcher Keith Krause said.

Gun ownership had increased in the volatile Middle East with huge stocks in Afghanistan and Iraq and as many as 90 million weapons across the region, the report said.

But the news was not all bad. A voluntary campaign in Brazil has taken 300,000 guns off the streets after a soaring death toll. And politicians approved a referendum for October on whether to ban firearms sales across that country.