UN lacking balance on small-arms issue

The United Nations will hold a global gun control forum from July 7-11 in New York. The meeting is a follow-up to a similar forum in 2001, which established its Program of Action, designed to "prevent, combat and eradicate the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects."

It should be noted that the UN defines "small arms" as weapons for personal use. This includes not only sporting shotguns, rifles and handguns, but machine guns, portable anti-tank guns and grenade launchers. "Light arms" include those weapons that need a crew to fire.

The Program of Action includes calling for establishing national agencies to coordinate small arms, a pledge to destroy surplus weapons, tracking "officially held guns," marking of guns and light weapons at the point of manufacture and maintaining gun manufacture records.

At the July UN meeting nations will report on their progress and showcase programs aimed at stopping gun violence, according to the UN.

It also is likely that delegates will hear proposals calling for a worldwide tax on the sales of firearms by individuals — such as those recently put forth by French president Jacque Chirac and Brazil's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Revenues generated from such a tax are proposed to go toward feeding world hunger.

The 2001 UN forum on small arms and light weapons was a dramatic event. It included a public gun burning as part of an international Small Arms Destruction Day. Maybe similar fireworks will happen this time as well, although I have not seen any press releases about upcoming gun burnings as of press time.

However, the United Nations Department for Disarmament Affairs offers "A Destruction Handbook on Small Arms, Light Weapons, Ammunition and Explosives," to help anyone from holding their own gun burning at a time of their own choosing.

If you have been watching the TV news recently and seen the well-armed children soldiers in Liberia, as well as the carnage in various civil wars and military actions around the world, you can understand why a peacekeeping body might be concerned about illicit small arms that fall into the wrong hands.

The UN should be concerned about this, but the UN is supposed to be a group that promotes peace, and that should include acknowledging and respecting legal small arms owners.

What is totally missing from any of the UN documents and press releases about small arms that I have seen is an acknowledgement of legal small arms owners and users. This is cause for concern.

There are some 65 million to 70 million people in the world who participate in target shooting and hunting. The vast majority of uses of guns in developed countries are for sport. For example, in the United States, according to criminologist Gary Kleck, guns are used in defensive purposes about 2 million times a year, versus 600,000 times a year for gun crime. But, there are at least 26 million U.S. citizens who participate in various shooting sports.

The apex of shooting sports competition is the Olympics. Shooting sports were part of the first modern Olympics in 1896, and today there are 18 different shooting sports events in the Summer Olympics and eight biathlon events in the Winter Olympics. The International Paralympics also feature 16 shooting sport events.

Shooting sports are not only enormously popular; they also are the safest of all popular sports, and getting safer. According to the U.S. National Safety Council's Injury Facts Report, in 2000 U.S. firearms accidents in general fell to the lowest number since recordkeeping began in l903.

Unfortunately, the National Safety Council does not differentiate between injuries in sport shooting and accidental injuries from firearms, in general. So, we do not have firm statistics on the numbers of target-shooting accidents in the United States, but we do have many indications of their safety.

Bob Mitchell of the USA Shooting Team is aware of only one firearms injury in competitive shooting matches since he first became involved with shooting sports competitions in l963. The U.S. National Skeet and Sporting Clays Associations have no record of any weapons-related fatality associated with a registered skeet or sporting clays competition.

Thanks to some 55,000 volunteer Hunter Education Instructors in North America — whose courses are mandatory in all 50 states to qualify for getting a hunting license — hunting is safer than many popular sports, including golf, tennis, basketball and even table tennis.

According to the International Hunter Education Association, in 2000 there were 91 fatal accidents and 835 non-fatal accidents for the more than 13 million licensed hunters in the United States. In contrast, the U.S. National Safety Council reports that recreational boating and bicycling account for 800 to 900 fatalities per year each, and swimming fatalities normally exceed 1,000 per year.

Archery is even safer. An agent at Accordia Insurance Company who handles the policy for the American Archery Association told me that during the last five years, she has had only one injury claim for an archer. This was a repeated stress injury — an elbow problem from a tournament archer who shot too much with improper form.

There are more than 3 million hunters in the U.S. who hunt with bow and arrow. From 1993-1998, the last five years for which data is available, injuries per year have never been more than 20 and fatal injuries per year range from three to six. Most of these people were injured in falls, especially out of tree stands.

Despite the enormous popularity and safety of shooting sports — not just in the U.S., but worldwide — they receive no notice in United Nations discussions of small arms. This is especially strange since the UN also has a major facility in Switzerland, where target shooting is the national sport. The Swiss, have one of the highest ownerships of firearms in the world, and a comparatively low crime rate. This situation speaks to how social and cultural factors influence gun use and crime.

United Nations Resolution 50/13, adopted Nov. 21, 1995, affirms its continued support for the Olympic Games as a vehicle for supporting world peace, a better world and the "well-being of mankind." As shooting sports are part of the Olympics, Resolution 50/13 implicitly endorses firearms sports. The UN should recognize this in their discussions of small arms.

To only focus illicit small arms, the UN contributes to stereotyping all small arms as bad. That is neither accurate nor fair.

And as for the proposal to tax all firearms sales to feed the world's hungry, in many parts of the world firearms are important to feed people. In developing countries, like Africa, sport hunters provide millions of dollars to rural communities, as well as fresh meat through programs like CAMPFIRE.

In the United States, each year people consume more than 750 million pounds of wild meat, which is roughly equivalent to 2 million head of cattle. Priced at the conservative rate of $1.75 per pound for beef, the wild meat consumed in this country would be valued at $1.3 billion. This does not include American Indian and Eskimo communities, many of whom depend on wild game for survival.

Poverty and hunger are serious problems. They are a cause of crime, war and civil conflict and influence illicit small arms use. More money could help alleviate human suffering, but to target a tax on legal firearms owners to solve the world's problems penalizes law-abiding people and totally ignores the economic, social and wildlife conservation values of sporting arms and sportsmen.

Perhaps even more important, demonizing all firearms may make social conditions worse, for, as John Lott Jr. and other firearms scholars have shown, more legal guns in the hands of private citizens usually results in fewer crimes.

I have a proposal for the United Nations: Instead of taxing firearms owners, why not tax people for making outrageous proposals? We all pay a price for political buffoonery already.

And in terms of saving the environment, all the hot air generated by pompous politicians probably is a significant cause of global warming.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click here to purchase a copy.

To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.