Weapons: The Instrument of the Devil


September 10, 2007: In Africa, and other places where the threat, and reality, of random violence is great, it's not bullets that kill most people, but the threat of bullets. In the last decade, millions of people have died in the Congo, the victims of a series of civil wars and uprisings that are still smoldering. Most died of disease or starvation, not bullet wounds. But the root cause was the sudden easy availability of cheap automatic weapons in the 1990s.

The AK-47 has become as much of a curse for Africa as many major diseases. Not just in the places you hear about, like Somalia, Congo and Sudan, but in many others as well. Easy availability of firearms has produced a murder rate in South Africa that is, per capita, ten times what it is in the United States. The east African nation of Kenya has seen many rural tribes getting cheap AK-47s in the last decade. This has resulted in traditional crimes, like stealing cattle or land, turning into bloody wars. In western Kenya alone, 20-30 men are dying each month in tribal clashes. This is a death rate nearly ten times higher than in the pre-AK-47 days. The violence has caused over 50,000 people to flee their homes, and wrecked local government in many areas. Sending in additional police and soldiers has quieted things down somewhat. But the local guys with the guns know where to hide, and the government reinforcements don't. So, eventually, the police will leave, and the AK47s will still be there.

Foreign aid organizations have adapted by hiring some of the local gunmen, to protect the relief operations from all the other gunmen. That just takes money away from more socially acceptable work. But the guns cannot be ignored. Local bad guys can steal a lot more when armed with an AK-47, than in the old days when all he had was a spear or an axe.

The disruptive effect of all these guns has halted, or reversed, decades of progress in treating endemic diseases. Death rates from disease and malnutrition are going up. All because of several million Cold War surplus AK-47s getting dumped in Africa. The world market for such weapons was glutted by the late 1990s. All that was left was Africa, but only if you were willing to sell cheap.

The end of the Cold War suddenly put over 20 million assault rifles and other automatic weapons on the market. The most common model was the AK-47 (or AKM, or various clones). Enterprising East European gunrunners scoured the world for markets, and quickly found them in places like Africa, South Asia and South America. For several years, when the flood of cheap weapons were at their peak, you could get a Cold War surplus AK-47 for less than $100, delivered, by a battered Cold War surplus Russian transport, to remote jungle airstrips.

The cheap AK-47 also made it possible to use 10-14 year old children as soldiers. This was not possible before, because the old weapons (spears, swords, bows) required muscle. But now, if you could lift a ten pound AK-47 and pull the trigger, you were a killer. Child soldiers changed everything, because warlords could just kidnap kids and quickly brainwash them. These armies of child killers made insurrection and anarchy more common. Tens of millions of Africans fled their homes to avoid these tiny terrors, and many of those refugees died of starvation or disease. These victims were just as dead, even if the bullets didn't get them. In fact, few AK-47 victims died from bullets. It was the massive fear, and breakdown of society, and the economy, that killed most people confronted by all these cheap AK-47s. The kids weren't very good shots, but if they got close enough to you, they were capable of unimaginable horrors.

Politics isn't the only thing that comes from the barrel of a gun.


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