A morbid birthday for the AK-47

It’s the most popular weapon since the spear. In some places, it’s easier to find than potable water. And in our lifetime, it’s a terrific reason to push for arms control.

Humans always come up with ingenious weapons to butcher other humans. The trireme sank the Persians at Salamis. The longbow won the day at Agincourt. The U-boat allowed Germany to rule the Atlantic. But why spend your money engineering a complicated weapon? Not every kid could shoot a bow and arrow, and not every sailor could work in a submarine. It was Russia’s Avtomatni Kalashnikova model-1947, first put into production on July 6, 1947, that kept warfare brutually simple.

The AK-47 was compact and easy to clean. It had a spacious magazine. And when the weapon reached mass production, the Soviet Union had more guns than vodka. Since 1949, as many as 70 million Kalashnikov-type rifles and light machine guns were manufactured. (Some reports claim as many as 100 million have been produced.) Like a counterfeit iPod made in China, it’s also easy to find cheap substitutes. An AK-47 can be sold for as little as thirty bucks in certain disreputable markets. Since the monetary value of the weapon has diminished, you could probably trade a pair of New Balance sneakers for a small arsenal. (An example of the widely marketed AK-47 can be found in the recent film Lord of War.)

The AK-47 is a fearsome descendant of the spear. . . and everybody has one. They can extinguish a village. They can bring instant terror to a population. They sell like hamburgers.

Arms control must be enforced at the global level. World leaders must respect the potential of cheap arms and their rapid sale and distribution to multiple parties. Monitor agencies need better inspectors, equipment, and authority. Legitimate manufacturers need tighter safeguards and illegal dealers need to be shut down. But none of this is ever easy to enact or keep in place. A simple fact is quickly forgotten:  violence is easier when such weapons enter the world.


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