How Do You Turn AK-47s Into Cufflinks? Very Carefully, Let's Hope


Would you buy cufflinks that used to be part of a Kalashnikov? Peter Thum hopes you—or at least some of those one-percenters—will.

In 2001, Thum founded Ethos Water, a company he eventually sold to Starbucks that uses 5¢ from each sale of its bottled water to fund water sanitation projects around the globe. This year, he helped launch Fonderie 47, a nonprofit group company that purchases assault rifles in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and turns them into "rare jewelry, watches, and accessories." The organization's cufflinks reportedly cost around $35,000. Earrings run $150,000.

Thum and his co-founder John Zapolski started the organization after traveling extensively in Africa. "They have seen assault rifles in the hands of children," a Fonderie 47 press release says, "and witnessed firsthand the problem of assault rifles and how it hinders many aspects of development across Africa." To date, the group has destroyed more than 6,000 assault rifles purchased in the DRC and hopes eventually to eradicate illegal firearms from the continent.

The initiative sounds like a fantastic feel-good effort to fight child-soldiering and similar scourges, at least as long as you ignore the elephant in the room: How will it affect the local gun trade?

Forbes contributor Elmira Bayrasli queried Diana Wueger, who writes about international and domestic small-arms at the blog Gunpowder and Lead and for The Atlantic, about the organization. Wueger raised the salient concerns:

"Guns in conflict zones are commodities that obey basic economic principles—the market reacts to an increased demand by increasing prices, which could lead to some serious—and unpredictable—second-order effects."

Bayrasli reports that the organization only works with "verified government sources," not the open market:

Thum also notes that he would not have "started doing this" if he didn't believe that by "buying up cheap weapons we can move the supply curve inward." Replacement weapons, he notes, are more expensive in Africa, compared to the rest of the world. In Africa these weapons cost only about one-third what they do elsewhere in the world, so resupply from outside is expensive.

But if the initiative's purchases increases gun demand and prices rise, criminals and rebels and people generally will look for ways to get their weapons into the trade—through concealed government backchannels or bribes, perhaps. Fonderie 47 could wind up helping fund the types of activity it seeks to eradicate, and nefarious types still probably wouldn't have trouble acquiring some of the estimated 20 million assault rifles in Africa.

The prevalence of illegal firearms may be an epiphenomenon anyway, clouding the underlying causes of the African conflicts Fonderie 47 seeks to remedy.

Read Reason on the related-but-different topic of gun control here.