Most categories of global trade may be doing it hard, but one sector is (pun coming) booming: small arms.

Ballooning US demand and a surge in use of handguns drove up the global trade in small arms by more than a quarter between 2000 and 2006, according to a new United Nations-backed study.

Those weapons in the hands of civilians, security forces or armed groups were behind the deaths of 450,000 people, said the authors of the Small Arms Survey 2009.

Pistols, revolvers, rifles and heavy machine guns accounted for 60 percent of deaths through intentional violence of any kind, including the use of bombs, knives or bare hands, whether in conflicts or crime, the experts said.

By 2006, the legal market for small arms and light weapons was worth US$2.9 billion, based on customs data collected by the UN from 53 countries. Demand from the US alone was responsible for 48 percent of the worldwide increase in imports, it found.

“Current data shows the global trade in small arms and light weapons is robust and even expanding, and that handguns are driving it,” said survey programme director Keith Krause. The top exporters in 2006 for small arms, light weapons, parts and ammunition were the US, Germany, Brazil, Austria and Belgium.

The report also criticised shortcomings in transparency in the small arms trade in Iran, North Korea, South Africa, Russia, Israel and Taiwan.

The annual survey by researchers at Geneva’s Graduate Institute is backed by UN agencies and several European countries.