Violence and Injury Prevention

Small arms and global health

ISBN 92 4 159027 0


The term “small arms and light weapons” is often taken to mean all types of firearms, from handguns to shot guns and assault rifles. More specifically, however, the term refers to “any weapon that can be carried or transported and managed by a single person” and as such also includes hand grenades, land mines and even small surface to air missile launchers.

In the past few years, firearms-related death and injury have been called everything from a “scourge” (1) to an “epidemic” (2), a “disease” (3) and a “preventable global health problem” (4). The biological analogies are not accidental or far-fetched. Among people aged 15–44 years, interpersonal violence and suicide rank third and fourth, respectively among the world’s leading causes of ill-health and premature mortality, while war-related injuries rank sixth (5). A large proportion of these occur through the use of firearms.

A public health response

Violence is not simply a social ill or a social justice problem. It is an important health problem — and one that is largely preventable. Public health approaches have much to contribute to solving it.

Although the public health implications of violence have been known — if not fully understood or measured — for many years, they only received global recognition in 1996, when the Forty-ninth World Health Assembly adopted Resolution 49.25 (6). The Resolution declared violence a global public health problem, emphasizing in particular:

  • the serious immediate and future long-term implications for health and psychological and social development that violence represents for individuals, families, communities and countries;
  • the growing consequences of violence for health care services everywhere and its detrimental effect on scarce health care resources for countries and communities.

This background, together with the considerable body of research that confirms the burden of death and injury related to firearms, explains why the World Health Organization (WHO), as the directing and coordinating authority on international health is concerned about the illicit trade in small arms.

In this paper, WHO has two aims: firstly, to broaden the definition of the problem beyond the realm of legal, industrial, strategic or tactical considerations by demonstrating its public health importance; and secondly, to introduce to this discussion the public health community’s longstanding emphasis on scientific methodologies and prevention. In doing so, it brings into the arena a large body of scientific work which has been carried out over the past few decades on small arms and violence by a variety of public health institutions, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and individual researchers operating at local, national and international levels.