03/28/2011 06:07 pm ET | Updated May 28, 2011

Just How Armed and Dangerous Are They?

The Small Arms Survey of Geneva, Switzerland has just released a research note, "Private Security Companies' Firearms Stockpiles" based on a forthcoming chapter from the Small Arms Survey 2011 yearbook. The note examines private security company (PSC) firearm holdings: their scale and variation across settings.

Similar to the difficulty of tracking private contractors themselves, the note finds that information on PSC arms holdings is scarce and lacks precision.

States that maintain firearm registration systems do not always distinguish between civilian- and PSC-held firearms. In some countries, PSC employees can carry their personal weapons while on duty, further complicating accounting. In other cases, personnel have been reported to carry illegal--thus unrecorded-- firearms. These different factors make it particularly challenging to draw a comprehensive picture of PSC firearm holdings.

According to the Survey the PSCs in Latin America appear to be more armed than in other regions. Even so, ratios remain systematically below one firearm per employee.

A survey of the industry in Europe reveals that the proportion of PSC personnel that is authorized to be armed is about 40 per cent in Bulgaria, just fewer than 25 per cent in Slovenia, Spain and Turkey, and below 10 per cent in Croatia, Germany and Sweden. These varying ratios are explained by the fact that PSCs exercise a variety of functions, many of which, contrary to conventional pop culture wisdom, do not necessitate weapon use - such as risk analysis and security advice. Furthermore, PSC personnel who are permitted to carry firearms often do not each have their own weapon, nor do they always carry one. Guns may be stored in a central armory

Of course, as one might expect, the quotients of firearms possession increases significantly for contractors in active war zones.

Conflict-affected areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq experience much higher levels of PSC firearm holdings. In such settings, industry sources argue that maintaining weapon capabilities at least equal or superior to potential attackers' is crucial. In practice, this translates into PSCs being armed at levels comparable to state security forces, as reports of more than three firearms per PSC personnel in Afghanistan illustrate. In contrast, law enforcement personnel worldwide hold an estimated average 1.2 firearms per officer, while the military generally keep more than one and sometimes as many as ten weapons per soldier.

Among 35 PSC operating in Afghanistan the Survey examined the firearms per personnel ratio was 3.47.

Where and what kind of firearms are permitted is also examined. A number of countries actually prohibit PSCs from using firearms on their territory. As one would expect these are countries where there aren't any wars, including the Bahamas, Denmark, Japan, Kenya, the Netherlands, Nigeria, Norway, and the UK.

A survey across 34 European states found that the vast majority of PSCs are only allowed to use handguns (pistols and revolvers). Smoothbore firearms (such as shotguns) are authorized in few countries, and almost all European countries prohibit PSCs from using automatic firearms. Fully automatic firearms are also banned from PSC use in Argentina, Brazil, Guatemala, Peru, and South Africa.

The Survey concludes that:

An examination of PSC firearm holdings merits greater scrutiny. Their numbers may represent but a small fraction of total civilian stockpiles, yet the more interesting question is how they relate to certain state security sector holdings, and what does this say about the state's role in upholding law and order. Moreover, oversight and transparency regarding their stockpiles is often slim at best. In many countries, official standards for the management and safeguarding of PSC weapons, as well as for the training of PSC personnel, are non-existent. Confidentiality of internal PSC procedures also makes an evaluation of industry standards and performance particularly difficult.