ON JULY 9, 2001, John Bolton stood before members of the United Nations and shocked them with what many considered the most vitriolic and unilateral stance seen at the world organization in recent memory. For a body that prided itself on being diplomatic and conciliatory, the members heard the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs reel off a litany of forceful “No’s”—lines in the sand that the world’s only surviving superpower would not allow to be crossed when it came to small-arms control.

After lauding the concept of the UN’s first Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons—SALW as it’s often called—Bolton proceeded to lay out the U.S. minority position. “We do not support measures that would constrain legal trade and legal manufacturing of small arms and light weapons…. We do not support the promotion of international advocacy activity by international or nongovernment organizations, especially when those political or policy views advocated are not consistent with the views of all member states…. We do not support measures that prohibit civilian possession of small arms.”

As his speech continued, Bolton dashed the hopes of officials from many countries, especially those in Africa, who had hoped for strong international support to help rid their nations of small arms, especially AKs, that were responsible for many of the continent’s problems. As Bolton continued, it was becoming clear to many attendees that the U.S. position would not soften or change. Any agreement, if one were even to be reached during the two-week conference, would end up being inadequate and watered down. Perhaps most damaging to countries pulled apart by low-level conflicts fueled by cheap small arms was his statement, “We do not support measures limiting trade in SALW solely to governments.” Calling this concept “conceptually and practically flawed,” Bolton said it would “preclude assistance to an oppressed nonstate group defending itself from a genocidal government. Distinctions between governments and nongovernments are irrelevant in determining responsible and irresponsible end users of arms.” In other words, there was no difference between legitimate governments and other groups in terms of who should be able to buy small arms, even in large quantities. While this stance played well to the National Rifle Association and pro-gun groups in the United States—a country not coping with well-armed rebel groups—it was a stab in the back to countries trying to keep AKs out of the hands of terrorist groups, drug cartels, and insurgents.

Bolton capped his remarks by stating that the United States would not commit to any binding agreements.

As he uttered his last words, most of the audience sat in stunned silence, astounded at how sharp and un-UN-like his presentation had been. Moreover, insiders who had read his speech the day before were totally shocked that he had changed it at the last minute to make it even more venomous. It was not the same speech approved for delivery by the State Department.

One group was not quiet. As members of the UN sat dumbfounded by Bolton’s harsh words, cheers rose from the gallery where National Rifle Association representatives sat. To all present, it was clear that Bolton had carried the gun lobby’s message.

After the meeting ended, Georgia congressman Bob Barr held a news conference. This move also surprised attendees, as no one could recall another time when a U.S. legislator had convened such an event at the UN. Barr, an NRA board member, reiterated Bolton’s “Red Line” issues: “If the conference can concentrate on the central issue of the flow of illicit weapons then we’re in agreement. But if it drifts off into areas that are properly the area of national level decision-making, then I think there will be difficulties.” Barr threatened to cut funding to the United Nations if the body did not limit itself to the issue of illegal weapons flows.

As he hailed a cab outside the UN building, Barr pointed to a bronze sculpture titled Non-Violence by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reutersward, which depicts a .45-caliber pistol with a knot tied in its barrel. The pretzel-like symbol struck Barr as ridiculous. “You’d at least think they’d put an AK-47 out there. That’s a standard firearm.”

After Bolton gave his bombshell speech, he returned to Washington, leaving Lincoln Bloomfield Jr., the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, to handle the remainder of the conference. Although Bloomfield was a twelve-year veteran of the State Department, he had been in his current job for less than two months. Representatives from other nations viewed Bolton’s hard-line speech, quick exit, and replacement by the inexperienced Bloomfield as dismissive and disrespectful to the United Nations and the conference’s work.

Bolton’s remarks had done their job. They stopped cold the UN’s move to limit illegal small-arms trafficking, which had begun in earnest after the breakup of the Soviet Union.

TO UNITED NATIONS POLICYMAKERS, it was becoming clear that small arms were not just about little tribal wars. They were directly blamed for the deaths of more than half a million people annually both from armed conflict and domestic violence. They enabled drug wars, terrorism, and insurgencies. But small arms did much more long-term damage to countries. They increased the worldwide burden on health care systems and allowed the spread of infectious diseases by preventing medical caregivers from entering conflicted areas. Excesses of small arms led to severe economic consequences by destabilizing governments and destroying economic infrastructures. After having dealt with the specter of nuclear weapons for the previous decades, and with that shadow now gone, the UN had turned its attention to small arms and how to destroy them.

Small arms were the UN’s new bogeyman.

Individual countries and regional groups had tried with mixed results to decommission large numbers of small arms. Most of these guns were remnants of past conflicts and now were embedded in the culture. In other areas, they were owned for protection in lawless regions untouched by government control that offered open terrain for bandits and thieves. For example, in areas like Kenya’s Northeastern Province, which shares a four-hundred-mile border with Somalia, small arms used as protection were so ingrained in the day-to-day lives of the indigenous clans that efforts to have people turn them in, mainly AKs, proved unsuccessful. At the time of the UN conference, the only weapons relinquished there were ancient, unworkable, or barely able to function. “We are finding that if a weapon is surrendered voluntarily, that person has already acquired a better one,” said Maurice Makhanu, provincial commissioner. This reluctance to turn in small arms, especially cheap and durable AKs, was common throughout the world, a point not lost on UN officials.

In a presentation a year earlier about the role of the UN in the twenty-first century, Secretary-General Kofi Annan had presented the world body’s strongest attack on small arms when he said, “The death toll from small arms dwarfs that of all other weapons systems—and in most years greatly exceeds the toll of the atomic bombs that devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In terms of the carnage they cause, small arms, indeed, could well be described as ‘weapons of mass destruction.’ Small arms proliferation is not merely a security issue; it is also an issue of human rights and of development. The proliferation of small arms sustains and exacerbates armed conflicts. It endangers peacekeepers and humanitarian workers. It undermines respect for international humanitarian law. It threatens legitimate but weak governments and it benefits terrorists as well as the perpetrators of organized crime.”

For many U.S.-based pro-gun groups, the United Nations now had gone too far, and the agenda against SALW threatened their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Reports circulated throughout the pro-gun community that the UN was considering a one-gun-per-person strategy in addition to a ban on handgun possession by anyone other than government officials. There were rumors of plans for worldwide licensing of firearms with a database kept at the United Nations. None of these assertions were true, but many gun owners in the United States believed they were, and they inundated the United Nations with letters and phone calls voicing their concerns.

Even before the conference began, UN officials were forced to respond to the deluge with a public statement outlining their position. They reiterated that they were not planning to take away privately owned guns and that the conference’s focus was on illicit trade in small arms and not the legal trade, manufacture, or ownership of weapons. They even cited the UN’s own charter, which prohibited it from interfering in matters within a member state’s domestic jurisdiction. This included gun laws.

The UN statement also noted that the organization was inviting 177 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from five continents to offer their views and opinions. These included anti-gun groups such as the International Action Network on Small Arms (IANSA) as well as pro-gun groups such as the National Rifle Association. All NGOs had the same rights and privileges.

Despite these clarifications, the U.S. pro-gun groups’ fears were not assuaged, and they pressed Bolton to take his hard line at the United Nations. Not that Bolton needed any persuading. He was widely known as a strict constitutionalist and someone who had shown great disdain and disrespect in the past for the United Nations. “If the UN secretary [secretariat] building in New York lost ten stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference,” he had told a conference seven years earlier. “There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international body that occasionally can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United States when it suits our interest and we can get others to go along.”

At a press conference during the UN meeting, Bolton refuted the constant din of allegations that his delegation’s position was scripted by pro-gun groups. “I am not a member of the NRA. I have never been a member. Let me start over,” he said firmly. “I am not now and never have been a member of the NRA, and I have no idea who on the delegation is a member of the NRA. The NRA did not write our position and that’s that.”

Tensions were rising among delegates. Just as the pro-gun groups could not be convinced that the UN had no designs on their weapons, anti-gun groups believed that the NRA wrote the U.S. stance.

NGOs played a more pronounced role in this conference than in most other UN proceedings, and their participation was a major factor in how the two-week confab worked. A coalition wanting to stem the proliferation of small arms was the largest group present, representing about three hundred groups. The second largest was represented by the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, with the NRA as its most outspoken member. One of the more interesting facets was how some countries, China and Algeria for example, sought to restrict participation by NGOs, because they feared these groups would bring up human rights issues. Other countries, like Canada, Ireland, and the United Kingdom, included NGO representatives in the delegations because they were a source of data and information. One thing that most anti-gun delegates believed was that the pro-gun NGOs exerted a large influence on the U.S. position. For the NRA, the UN conference represented an opportunity to raise funds and enter the international arena in a way never before possible. Although the NRA had been active internationally, the UN conference propelled it to a higher level.

The U.S. hard-line posture seemed out of place considering that the United States was a world leader in transparency of arms sales and accountability. Compared to many countries, U.S. domestic gun laws were solid and workable, and the country was in the forefront of monitoring weapons transfers, maintaining security of weapons caches, licensing of brokers, and setting standards for weapons markings. The U.S. delegation did not push for international standards even in cases where U.S. laws exceeded worldwide proposals. To some people, it seemed as though the U.S. delegation was being confrontational for no apparent reason.

Perhaps this should not have been a surprise to astute observers, however. The Bush administration regularly took pains to dismiss any UN initiative that it felt would limit its future options. For example, the United States has not signed the Kyoto Protocol on limiting greenhouse gases despite the fact that the nation’s air was actually getting cleaner and many U.S. environmental laws are tougher than those elsewhere. And the United States has repeatedly refused to sign agreements that ban the use of land mines although it has not used antipersonnel mines since 1991. (President Clinton failed to sign the 1997 Mine Ban Treaty, but he did create a policy that would put the United States on track to join the treaty by 2006. The Bush administration has rejected the treaty outright.)

Although the United States appeared to go it alone with its stonewalling stance, other nations such as Russia and China tacitly agreed. For example, China, which supplied more AKs to the world than any other country, fought UN standards to mark weapons so they could be traced. Behind the scenes, Russia opposed restrictions on sales to nongovernmental entities, but was content to let the U.S. delegation take the heat. These three nations were not necessarily aligned on all issues, but the U.S. delegates were publicly vocal, distracting attention from the other two, who kept a low profile.

As the conference progressed it was becoming clear that the entire exercise might come to nothing over two main sticking points: supplying nongovernmental entities with weapons, and restrictions on civilian ownership of military-type weapons, issues on which Bolton would not compromise. The African bloc of nations, which had suffered the most from small-arms proliferation, held fast, insisting that these two provisions remain.

At 6 a.m. on the conference’s last day, the African states capitulated to the U.S. position rather than have the conference go up in flames. Some positive changes had come from the meeting, and they did not want to lose any momentum, albeit small. They knew that the U.S. position was absolutely intractable, because Bolton would be content if the conference did not produce any agreement whatsoever. In return, however, the African bloc insisted that conference president Camilo Reyes of Colombia publicly describe why they gave in and who was to blame. Reyes agreed and noted in part, “I must… express my disappointment over the conference’s inability to agree, due to the concerns of one State [the United States]…. The States most afflicted by this global crisis, Africa, had agreed only with the greatest of reluctance to the deletion of… these vital issues. They did so strictly in the interests of reaching a compromise that would permit the world community as a whole to proceed together with some first steps at the global level to alleviate this common threat.”

Although the conference’s final document, the Programme of Action, did little to stop the illegal trade in arms, some considered it a success anyway, because it raised awareness of the issue on a global level. This consciousness-raising may have been the conference’s most important legacy, according to many delegates who were optimistic that the meetings put in motion a long-term commitment to address the issue.

• • •

ONE TOPIC THAT DREW MUCH attention was that of universal standards for weapons marking to make tracing possible. At the time of the conference, the issue was thwarted because it could not get buy-in from countries like China, which sold many arms that ended up in the wrong hands. In fact, UN experts suggest that because more than 60 percent of illegal small arms started out as legal transfers, a marking and tracing system could go a long way to stop human rights abuses perpetrated at the end of a gun. Because no state was willing to institute worldwide restrictions at the national level on civilian possession of arms, this too was left out of the final document, but there was some movement at subsequent biennial meetings.

Unlike during the original conference, the United States became supportive in this area, mainly because U.S. gun makers already adhered to strict marking and record-keeping of firearms. Publicly, countries like Egypt, Syria, and China opposed marking and record-keeping because of increased scrutiny of their legal gun sales. Weapons from these countries often find their way into illegal channels.

For a worldwide marking system to be useful, each weapon must have a unique serial number that designates the country of origin, the manufacturer, and the year of production. As arms are transferred, a marking upon importation is also helpful. It offers investigators a starting point for any search by telling them the last country of import and also acts as a backup to the original markings if they become obliterated or if registry data become faulty or missing. Even if a trafficker were to imprint a false import marking, it could still be traced to the original country.

Politics asides, marking is a technical issue. Stamping is the traditional and most common marking technique. It is cheap and simple. Current-day marking usually takes place on large, flat areas such as the side of the receiver. On the AK, for instance, some typically seen symbols are an upward arrow within a triangle, which designates the Russian Izhevsk factory, and a five-pointed star, which is stamped on AKs from Russia’s Tula Arsenal. There are several variations of these symbols, such as placing them inside triangles and other geometric shapes. Another common AK marking is the number 66 inside a triangle, which designates AKs produced by China’s North China Industries (NORINCO), and the number 21 inside two concentric circles, placed on AKs from Bulgarian arms factories. Along with these shapes are numbers, letters, and other characters that identify the firearm and its point of origin.


Izhevsk Factory (Russia)

Tula Arsenal (Russia)

North China Industries (NORINCO)


Stamping has limitations, however. Newer, harder composites won’t accept stamping at all, and imprinting through injection molding does not allow enough detail in a small area to be practical. Laser marking has become the state of the art because of its precision and ability to imprint a lot of information, even bar codes. NASA and private industry have developed a two-dimensional digital image matrix that contains tiny black and white squares representing binary digits that describe a part number. NASA’s goal was to place these identification markers on even the tiniest parts used in the space program. Unlike bar codes, these matrix Unique Identifications, or UIDs, are scalable; they can be produced very large or microscopically small and still maintain their readability. They can hold more than one hundred times the amount of information of a typical bar code. The U.S. Army Armament Research and Development Center is testing these UIDs on M-16s and other matériel, because they can be read even after they have been damaged.

Lasers also allow marking on more expensive-to-replace, harder-to-reach parts of a firearm so that any grinding down of the area to obliterate the marking would make the firearm unusable. Some suggest placing laser markings on the breechblock or bolt. This would serve several purposes: it would be hidden until the gun was broken down; erasing the marking might render the part unusable; and replacing it with an unmarked bolt would be costly.

Many U.S., Canadian, and European gun makers routinely employ laser marking to imprint weapons quickly, about three firearms per minute. Costs are low, too, a few cents per weapon in large quantities once the imprinting machine is amortized at a cost of between $40,000 and $60,000. Stamping is less susceptible to erasures because the molecular structure of the metal is deformed much deeper by stamping than from a laser. On the other hand, laser marking is faster and some companies imprint markings with tiny laser holes that can go much deeper than a stamped imprint.

Although marking is one solution to illegal arms trafficking, it would be meaningless without a worldwide database and registry. Such a registry would require that all markings become standard—harmonization, as it’s called—but chances are slim of this occurring in the near future because mandatory participation among all nations would be difficult to obtain.

At the 2001 UN meeting, Bob Barr noted that the United States has some of the world’s most stringent laws concerning firearms marking, mandating the inclusion of the location, manufacturer’s name, and serial number. He suggested that other countries would do well to follow the U.S. lead in controlling exports. Barr held firm against an international registry, though, which he compared to internationally forced gun registration. “That is completely unacceptable, and I and others in the Congress will work to ensure any system of marking firearms focuses on eliminating illegal firearms trafficking, and does not allow the United Nations to create any system which registers or tracks U.S. gun owners or sales.”

At a June 2005 UN small-arms working group meeting on marking and tracing, attendees spent a great deal of time discussing the subject of ammunition marking. Proponents argued that while firearms were rarely left at the scene of crimes, shell casings often were, and bullets could be retrieved from victims’ bodies. If these bullets could be traced to the buyer, investigators would have a solid tool at their disposal.

Although many ammunition makers argue that marking each round would be prohibitively expensive, those in favor of marking note that cartridges are already imprinted successfully with some letters and numbers, sometimes the caliber size, manufacturer’s symbol, or some other identifier. German and Brazilian military ammunition buyers insist on further identification from their suppliers. They require that 5.56 × 45mm rounds for AK-102 and M-16 rifles be marked with the caliber and a ten-digit code composed of six numbers and four letters identifying the manufacturer, year and month of production, lot size, and a unique lot identifier.

Such intricate marking does impose additional expense. Simple markings such as manufacturer or year are traditionally applied by a piston that mechanically presses numbers and letters when the primer pocket is being formed by the same thrusting motion. These stamps only need changing annually. Not so with stamping of lot numbers. Assembly lines, which can hold up to ten thousand cartridges during the assembly process, must be stopped, current cartridges taken off the line, new stamps inserted, and the process begun anew. This is the only way to make sure that lot numbers are not mixed together, but it is time-consuming and slows production lines.

Brazil has decided to buck convention, however. Effective in January 2005, a Brazilian law required identification of eleven different calibers of ammunition to include the lot number as well as a code that identifies the buyer as armed forces, police, private security services, or sport shooting organizations. The calibers were those used in small arms including handguns, assault rifles, and machine guns. In addition, ammo boxes had to contain a bar code so the manufacturer and purchaser could be traced.

This move was in response to Brazil’s high rate of domestic gun-related murders. About thirty-five thousand to forty thousand Brazilians are killed annually by guns. Gun murders, mainly using handguns, are the leading cause of death in that nation, according to a recent study of fifty-seven countries conducted by the United Nations.

At the time of writing many of these shootings take place in the favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro. The government has lost control of these makeshift neighborhoods, some eight hundred or so with 1.2 million inhabitants, and gangs have taken over. Armed youths carrying automatic weapons patrol their turfs; some belong to paramilitary groups, while others are part of drug gangs. Still others belong to loose amalgams of poor people trying to protect what little they own with whatever small arms they can afford. Often, military police raid these shantytowns, looking for drug dealers and criminals, and hundreds of innocent people are killed each year by stray bullets from both government and nongovernment shooters.

Amid this dreadful situation, Brazilian officials have instituted some of the most restrictive gun laws in the Western Hemisphere. Only police and other law enforcement officials are permitted to carry firearms in public (some hunters are exempt). The minimum age for owning weapons has been raised from twenty-one to twenty-five, and those caught carrying weapons are subject to prison sentences of two to four years. The government also established a gun buyback program that made it more expensive to register a weapon than to turn it in for cash, $30 for handguns to $100 for assault rifles. One woman reportedly received $65,000 in 2004 for her deceased father’s collection of more than twelve hundred guns.

More important, at the time of writing, it is now possible in Brazil to trace ammunition used in crimes. One manufacturer, Companhia Brasileira Cartuchos (CBC), has already begun imprinting ammunition in compliance with the new marking law. The company uses lasers to imprint a five-digit code into the cartridge’s extractor groove, which provides a tiny grip for the gun’s extractor to pull the empty case from the chamber after firing. Using computer-directed lasers to imprint the codes does not slow down the assembly process, because once a lot has been produced, it is set aside for imprinting. Once the lot is finished, another lot can be imprinted with its own specific code. Numbers are recorded automatically by a computer for record-keeping purposes. Because marking is accomplished after production, even imported ammunition can be easily imprinted once it enters the country. To ensure tracing capabilities and prevent stealing, producers and importers are required to give “read-only” database information immediately to police and military commands. It is too early to tell if the new gun- and ammunition-marking laws will prevent gun violence, but legislators have high hopes.

So do California legislators and law enforcement officials who are scrutinizing the Brazilian ammunition-marking law for ideas. Instead of focusing solely on the firearm, they decided to look at ammunition for solutions to the state’s poor homicide closure rate. During 2003, 45 percent of California’s homicides remained unsolved. Although law enforcement officials in the state, as elsewhere, routinely collected bullets and empty cartridges left at crime scenes, nothing linked these remnants to a particular weapon until the shooter and the weapon were apprehended.

To help catch these people, the state senate passed a bill requiring all handgun ammunition sold or owned after 2007 in California to be marked, identifying the box from which it came. Ammunition dealers would be obligated to keep a record of sales, thus identifying each bullet shot and pegging it to the buyer. Gun owners were so incensed at the plan (cleverly labeled SB 357 after the .357 Magnum) that a Sacramento shooting club barred Department of Justice agents from firing on their range because of the attorney general’s support for the bill. The Sporting Arms and Ammunition Manufacturers’ Institute (SAAMI) opposed the bill, saying that implementation would cost hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment and raise the cost of each cartridge from pennies to dollars.

Law enforcement officials were split down the middle; some opponents suggested that the costs involved would not yield a worthwhile payoff, because criminals would simply use out-of-state ammunition. Law enforcement agencies were also concerned about the increased cost of ammunition that they would have to buy.

Another bill that attracted less controversy required that semiautomatic handguns imprint a microscopic stamp on casings as they were shot. In a criminal case, investigators would be able to match the gun (and presumably the owner) to the casings left behind at the scene. A company doing work in this area is NanoMark Technologies of Londonderry, New Hampshire, which holds a patent for “ballistic ID tagging.” Company officials contend that the ID tag is unambiguous—unlike bullet comparisons using conventional CSI-type ballistics methods—and leads directly to the weapon. The only shortcoming of the system is that the shooter could pick up the shell casings after firing, assuming the luxury of time and the presence of mind to collect them all.

To get around this problem, Seattle-based Ammunition Coding System developed a way of coding both the bullet and the cartridge casing. The company’s laser system imprints a unique identifying code on the inside of cartridge cases as well as the bullet. Both can be read with a magnifying glass. The company claims that the number can be read with as little as 20 percent of the bullet intact after firing. Testing by the San Bernadino County Sheriff ’s Department showed that they were able to read identification numbers in twenty-one of twenty-two instances. The only downside of this scheme is the high price of the engraving/handling equipment, from $300,000 to $500,000 per machine plus a per bullet licensing fee.

The implications of such bullet-tracing systems could be far-reaching. They could even keep small skirmishes from turning into regional wars. For example, UN officials had only casings to go on when they investigated a massacre at the Gatumba refugee camp in Burundi on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Beginning between 10 and 11:30 p.m. on August 13, 2004, refugees heard the sound of drums and religious chants approaching. Several survivors reported hearing a whistle and orders being shouted just before the attack. Witnesses disagreed on the number of assailants—the figure varied from one hundred to three hundred—but their composition was not in doubt. The attackers’ ranks included armed men, women, and children, some wearing complete or partial military uniforms and others in street clothes. They spoke several different languages, including those common to Congo and Burundi, and shouted slogans such as “kill these dogs, these Tutsis,” and “down with the Banyamulenge” (Tutsis from the Congo communities of South Kivu).

When the attackers finished their raid, 152 refugees were dead, and 108 were wounded. Eight refugees were never found. Of the dead and missing, 147 were Banyamulenge. The attackers did not target other groups in the camp. The tents housing Burundian returnees had been left untouched.

The massacre occurred during a fragile time. After six years of war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and eleven years of war in Burundi, all sides were in the midst of winding down tensions both internally and externally when the attack occurred. Many people in the region considered the Banymulenge as pro-Rwandan even though they fought on both sides of the civil war in Congo. UN investigators suggested that the attackers’ goal was to reignite regional fighting and weaken transitional governments.

The plan began to work. The governments of Burundi and Rwanda threatened to attack Congo and ferret out those responsible for the massacre. Strong evidence indicated one group, the National Liberation Front (FNL), which may have been part of the attacking group, but they did not organize the action or carry it out alone, judging by the different languages spoken during the melee. Leaders of the Burundi-based FNL at first admitted participating in the attack but later recanted. The Hutu group justified the massacre, saying that the Tutsis were heading up a new war in Congo that would destabilize a region that had been working toward peace.

After Burundi’s first democratically elected president was assassinated in 1993, after only four months in office, war between the Hutus and Tutsi caused 200,000 deaths and displaced more than 1.3 million people both inside and outside the country. A massive wave of refugees entering Congo from Burundi and the concurrent genocide in Rwanda in the early 1990s sparked tribal wars and an overthrow of the Congolese government in 1997. When the newly installed regime was challenged by Rwandan and Ugandan rebels, the result was a regional war—pulling in additional countries—that left more than a million Congolese displaced. In addition, Rwandan rebels used Congo as a base to attack Rwanda, prompting Rwanda to invade.

The regional war surrounding the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire, has been dubbed “Africa’s first world war,” because it involved six nations, each with its own reasons for involvement, and at least twenty separate armed groups. Since the outbreak of large-scale fighting in 1997, at least 3.8 million people have died, mostly children, women, and the elderly, mainly due to starvation. (Some estimates put the figure as high as 4.5 million.) The prolonged war forced 2.25 million people from their homes, some into refugee camps like Gatumba. The war was the deadliest conflict since World War II, and it was fought mainly with small arms, AKs being the most popular weapon. Although hostilities officially ended in 2002, many of the armed groups continued to fight at the time of writing. To help maintain the delicate stability in the region, it was crucial for the United Nations to find physical evidence of the perpetrators and bring them to justice. This would go a long way to preventing further conflicts born from rumor and unsubstantiated facts.

Unfortunately, by the time investigators arrived at Gatumba camp, the area had been cleansed. Many bodies had been buried in mass graves without forensic examination. Evidence was contaminated and injured victims had been taken to hospitals, where workers rejected UN access to patients from the camp.

Investigators had little solid evidence to go on except some cartridge casings that had not been swept up. Of the thousands of rounds fired, four different cartridge types were found. Markings showed that one was manufactured in Bulgaria in 1995 by Arsenal Kazanlak, two from the People’s Republic of China in 1998 by an unknown armory, and one from Prvi Partizan in Uzice, Serbia.

Without any way to trace the ammunition to their buyers, UN investigators were stymied. Not even the manufacturers were able to identify the original recipients of the ammunition. Based on the cartridge configurations, however, the Bulgarian and Chinese cartridges were probably fired from AKs. Beyond that, nothing else could be determined, and the attackers remain at large.

The incident at Gatumba camp remains a flash point for the region. Fighting continues. Some FNL troops have confessed to the Gatumba murders, and may be tried for their crimes. Without additional physical evidence, however, most participants may never be brought to justice.

Proponents of marking and tracing claimed that linking ammunition to buyers might curtail such attacks—and subsequent mistaken retaliations escalating to regional war—if perpetrators believed there was a high probability they would be caught. Opponents contended that unscrupulous gun brokers will always find a way to sell unmarked goods, and a black market in unmarked ammunition and guns will undoubtedly develop.

Even if marking and tracing were to begin tomorrow, however, there simply are too many older guns and caches of ammunition around to make any difference for the foreseeable future. Particularly in the case of AKs, it could take fifty years for some of today’s weapons to cease working; that, combined with the guns’ high tolerance for poorly made and deteriorating ammunition, means they could be functional and untraceable for decades. Johan Peleman, a Belgium-based arms investigator who has worked for the United Nations, put it starkly: “Tracing a twenty-year-old Kalashnikov, back to whoever delivered it, is virtually impossible.”

Some of these twenty-year-old AKs surfaced in Iraq after the United States invaded that country in 2003 in an effort to oust Saddam Hussein and destroy his supposed weapons of mass destruction. Once again, the Soviet-designed AK would go head-to-head with the U.S.-designed M-16, just as it had done in Vietnam more than forty years earlier.

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