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Gangland Killings and Arms Trafficking: Iain Overton Has Travelled the World Learning About Guns

We talked to the journalist, activist and gun crime expert about his comprehensive new book on global gun crime, Gun Baby Gun.

by Alice Tchernookova
15 April 2015, 5:00am

A midnight death in San Pedro Sula, Honduras (All photos courtesy of Iain Overton / Canongate Books)

"There is this enormous, diverse world around the gun. Some is dark, some is light."

This is how journalist and activist Iain Overton presents his new book, Gun Baby Gun, to me. It's a romantic narrative, but one I can't help but question. According to the website gunpolicy.org, small arms kill as many as 1,000 people globally each day, and wound millions more. So far, in the US alone, there have been 12,124 incidents related to gun violence this year. What, exactly, about this is "light"?

In Gun Baby Gun, Overton approaches this issue – and the many other questions that abound over the issue of firearm ownership – not academically, but by taking us on a journey around 25 countries, where he investigates gun violence from a street level up. In his own words, the book is about "detailing a whole sequence of horrific moments and my responses to those moments".

I spoke to Iain on the phone just as he came out of a CCW ( Convention on Conventional Weapons) conference at the UN in Geneva, where he'd talked about the impact of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) around the world.

VICE: Hi Iain. What's the story behind the book?
Iain Overton: The AOAV [Action on Armed Violence group, of which Iain is Director of Policy and Investigations] focuses on measuring and monitoring the impact of explosive weapons around the world, but less on analysing the spreading of small arms and guns. Somehow, their proliferation was highly debated 15 years ago but has slipped off the agenda. There's the Arms Trade Treaty, but it doesn't really address this particular issue.

I wanted to reinvigorate this debate. My book is a combination of past experiences as a journalist, lived experience – in terms of going out to countries as the writer of this book – and an overall analysis of the challenges the world has when it comes to combatting small arms. But it's by no means an academic book.

So your book is exclusively focused on gun-related issues?
Yes. The real harm comes from handguns; in the US, in 2013, they accounted for 91 percent of all firearm homicides where the type of gun was known. Explosive devices are used mostly in conflict zones, but the vast majority of armed-violence deaths occur in areas where it's "gangland" killings, or drug-dealing related deaths.

Dark sacks in San Pedro's morgue

How did you pick the 25 countries you talk about in the book?
I travelled over the year 2014. I went to a dozen countries specifically for the book: the US, Mexico, Pakistan, El Salvador, Honduras, Iceland, Germany, France, Israel, Turkey and Ukraine. The rest are countries I had been to before or during my career: Iraq, Colombia, Somalia, etc.

I picked Honduras because the city of San Pedro Sula has the reputation of being the most dangerous in the world outside a war zone [in 2013, the murder rate was 173 per 100,000, and there were just under six homicides a day in this municipal region alone]. I picked Mexico because Ciudad Juarez was, for many years, the most violent city on Earth. Ironically, it's also next to El Paso, one of the safest cities in America. Israel is the most militarised nation on the planet.

Ukraine – although I didn't go to the east, but to Odessa – is the epicentre of smuggling out of the Russian Federation. Since the fall of communism, Ukraine has emerged as the place to go for illicit goods and post-Soviet arms trafficking. There's a huge amount of small arms exported from Ukraine. I wanted to see what sorts of measures of control were there to stop the corruption, but it doesn't seem that there's very many.

How do you relate firearm violence and regulations on ownership?
It's illegal ownership of guns that pushes armed violence. Legal ownership pushes to suicide; the US has the highest per capita number of legally-owned guns in the world, and it's also got the highest levels of gun suicides in the world. Somewhere like El Salvador, instead, has much higher levels of illegally-owned guns and much higher results of violence.

A couple of sales reps at a US Gun show

What do you think of the issue around private gun ownership in the US?
I'm not anti-gun, per se. I think there is a role and a place for hunting and sporting activities with a gun; the challenge is more about the regulation. For example, Iceland has one of the highest rates of gun ownership, but there are no gun deaths at all. This is because levels of control are high; there are processes you have to go through to get an application to own a firearm. They also have low levels of smugglings and criminality in general, and a liberal legal system – all of these things underpin why Iceland has no potential gun violence. The US instead has a punitive legal system, with the second highest levels of incarceration per capita in the world.

Gun ownership in itself is incredibly widespread in the US, and many people own guns without being registered with the state authorities. So people with mental health issues can sometimes get their hands on guns, and that's why you see those mass-shootings. I'm not anti-guns, but I am anti-lax gun control.

I also think the Second Amendment of the US Constitution is no longer a US-issue, but is now a global issue: the right to bear arms has had significant consequences on the proliferation of American small arms in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. The US' policies also largely influence international policies at the UN, and the debate on small arms control.

Looking at recent events, do you think there's an issue with the US police force using firearms abusively?
The US has a very heavy-handed approach towards responding to violence: a policeman will shoot if he feels threatened. There's clearly a huge amount of people killed every year by US police. SWAT team actions have become much more frequent. There have been SWAT team raids on barber shops and gay bars. There is a sort of militarisation going on, which increases terror on both sides.

In the book you talk about "porn starlets who appear as snipers in XXX films". What is that?
[Laughs] Yes, I was referring to Stoya, an American porn actress who was once portrayed as a sniper in a porn movie. She hates guns, but the director had told her it was a "male fantasy". I think guns are indeed a male fantasy. Men are questioning their role in society nowadays – there's that whole discussion around metrosexuality. If you google "babes and guns" you'll find lots of things. There was a whole thing in the 1980s of females in bikinis shooting with rifles. Generally speaking, the vast majority of people who shoot are men. I think there's a real fetishisation in many conflicts about snipers. It touches on deep male insecurities; if you have a gun, you're the one in control.

After an autopsy, San Pedro Sula

What were the most shocking events you witnessed during your journey for the book?
I've been held up at gunpoint three times. Each one of them was an absolute moment of terror. In Papua New Guinea my clothes were taken from me. I was really scared for my life at that point, so I personally experienced high levels of fear with feeling the barrel of a gun held up against your head.

I met child soldiers whose entire lives were predicated around the ownership of guns. I've seen 12-year-olds carry semi-automatic rifles. My experience in San Pedro Sula was one of the most powerful ones: within five days I saw a dozen bodies lying around in different places. You realise how dramatically casual death can sometimes become. It's been a broad brushstroke of horrors.

What do you take away from your experience?
The gun changes people. When a man has a gun in his hand, he becomes somebody different – the entire power mechanism is changed. When someone pulls out a gun there's immediate electricity in the air. You're beholden to the guy because he could use it on anyone.

It's something I've witnessed again and again: when the police, militaries and criminals use their guns, I've repeatedly seen a transformation in their face and their body movements. Guns are transformative objects – somebody in despair with a handgun is much more likely to blow their brains out, while somebody in fear is much more likely to shoot someone. A gun works like an accelerator and an intensifier of specific emotions.

Graffiti in Bethlehem

What changes are you hoping to see in the near future?
My argument in the book is basically that there should be greater control on sales and that gun companies should be held to account. I think a lot more could be done around regulations to ensure that small arms sales don't happen in countries with significant rights abuses.

One of the challenges, though, is that attempts in the past to regulate sales have been compromised by the US, Russia and China – the three biggest gun manufacturers in the world. I believe the debate about damages caused by small firearms needs to be raised again, and we need a global analysis of small arms harm. But the basic root to begin this debate is to know how many people are being shot – we don't.

Gun Baby Gun is out on the 16th of April in the UK

@AliceTcherno

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