On March 15, the peacekeeping mission in Haiti had its first casualty when a US marine was shot by a small-caliber pistol as he patrolled a stronghold of support for ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. While not fatal, the shooting is an unfortunate sign of things to come. With thousands of small arms in Haiti, the threat to US soldiers, Haitian civilians, and sustainable peace is real.

The Caribbean island nation is the latest in a long list of countries plagued by small-arms proliferation. As in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s a problem that has impacted all segments of society in Haiti, impeding development and efforts to build democracy and contributing to violent crime.

 Recent media images show young men armed with M-16s and AK-47s, but there are shotguns and rifles, assault weapons, and even military hardware dating back to World War II. As in many other nations in conflict and postconflict situations, data on legal and illicit small arms in circulation as well as gun deaths and injuries are either nonexistent or unreliable. But the exact numbers are less important than the fact that small arms have become a destabilizing force in Haiti, easily available to the various factions and militias, as well as to criminal gangs and ordinary civilians.

Now, as the initial instability in the wake of Mr. Aristide’s ouster eases, the US and its allies can focus on effective disarmament and control over weapons in Haiti, both of which are necessary to stability and security.

There are two steps to stopping the proliferation of small arms there. First, the US must get a handle on weapons already in Haiti. Second, it must prevent new ones from making their way in.

Currently US Marines, along with multinational forces, are actively disarming Haitian rebels. This is not a systematic effort, however, but one being conducted on an ad hoc basis, as opportunities arise. Without an organized process for disarming combatants as part of peacekeeping, efforts to gain control over small-arms stockpiles will fail. Moreover, the State Department’s Weapons Removal and Abatement office does not have an operational component; only once the situation on the ground has stabilized can an official disarmament policy be implemented.

We’ve been down this road before in a weakened Haiti, and the US failed to stop small arms from wreaking havoc. After the 1994 US occupation, disarmament was hailed as the most crucial element to stability. But with an undefined US mission, and the pullout of troops in February 1996, efforts to control small arms stalled. A US-led gun buyback from September 1994 thru March 1995 netted 13,281 weapons and munitions (many of which were unusable). The cost of the program through January 1995 was $1,924,950, and it allegedly allowed people to buy better weapons with the money received from turning in useless ones.

This time, the United States and the international community must do better.

Once small arms have been collected, secured, and destroyed, it is crucial that their flow – through both legal and illegal channels – be eliminated. Anecdotal evidence points to Florida as a reliable source for guns, which make their way into the hands of criminal elements taking advantage of lax Caribbean customs controls. Just last week, the State Department suspended gun sales to dealers in Jamaica due to concerns that US guns might be contributing to crime in that nation.

In January 2002 under the Excess Defense Articles program, the Defense and State Departments authorized the transfer of 20,000 M-16s to the Dominican Republic, which shares a notoriously porous border with Haiti. While the shipment has mistakenly been labeled as a source of recent instability, in fact the M-16s have yet to arrive. The first 2,000 to 3,000 are scheduled for transfer in the coming months. Evidence does point to a flow of weapons to Haitian rebels from the Dominican Republic in the leadup to the unrest, however. (Other weapons are credited to the disbanded Haitian Army). And any new influx would be at risk of diversion.

At the very least, the gun transfer to the Dominican Republic should be delayed, if not canceled entirely.

The United States must learn from past mistakes with regard to small arms in Haiti. Closer than Iraq and Afghanistan, it cannot be ignored by America’s policymakers or citizens. Without a stable and secure Haiti, the US could face a fresh onset of Haitian migrants, a loss of economic investment opportunities for US businesses, and a future Haitian military and political crisis. It is in the best interest of the US to ensure that sustainable disarmament takes place in Haiti as soon as possible.

Rachel Stohl is a senior analyst at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.