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The OAS Treaty: Blueprint for Dismantling the Second Amendment

Friday, August 14, 2009

by Dave Kopel

The Obama administration’s offensive against the Second Amendment has begun.

As was predicted, the strategy uses international law to create a foundation for repressive and extreme gun control. The mechanism is an international treaty, the “Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Ammunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials.”

If the plan succeeds, police sales of confiscated firearms would be prohibited and anyone who reloads ammunition at home would need a federal license. In addition, the treaty would create an international law requirement that almost every American firearm owner be licensed as if he were a manufacturer.

Founded in 1948, the Organization of American States (OAS) includes all of the independent nations of the Western Hemisphere. (Cuba’s participation has been suspended since 1962.) In 1997, President Clinton signed a gun control treaty that had been negotiated by OAS. Subsequently, neither he nor President George W. Bush sent the treaty to the United States Senate for ratification.

The treaty is commonly known as “CIFTA,” for its Spanish acronym, Convención Interamericana Contra la Fabricación y El Tráfico Ilícitos de Armas de Fuego, Municiones, Explosivos y Otros Materiales Relacionados. The document is called a “convention” rather than a “treaty” because “convention” is a term of art for a multilateral treaty created by a multinational organization.

At the OAS meeting in April 2009, President Obama said that he would send CIFTA to the U.S. Senate and urge ratification. The White House claimed that the convention was merely an expression of international goodwill.

That’s false.

In the United States, it is common for police and sheriffs’ departments to sell confiscated firearms to federally licensed firearm dealers (FFLs). The FFLs then resell the guns to lawful consumers. Of course, when any FFL sells a gun to a customer, the sale must be approved by the National Instant Check System, or its state equivalent.

Police and sheriff sales of confiscated guns would be outlawed by CIFTA which mandates: “State Parties shall adopt the necessary measures to ensure that all firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related materials seized, confiscated, or forfeited as the result of illicit manufacturing or trafficking do not fall into the hands of private individuals or businesses through auction, sale, or other disposal.”

Another target of CIFTA is reloading. The millions of Americans who reload include competitive target shooters, hunters, trainers who want to craft milder ammunition for beginners, and many other hobbyists who enjoy making things themselves and saving money. Due to the present shortage of ammunition, more and more people are taking up reloading--so many that reloading equipment manufacturers are having difficulty keeping their products in stock.

Reloading is entirely lawful in every state and no state requires a specific permit for those reloading ammunition. CIFTA, however, declares that “illicit manufacturing” is the “manufacture or assembly of firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related materials” that takes place without “a license from a competent governmental authority of the State Party where the manufacture or assembly takes place.”

Thus, either the federal government or all 50 state governments would have to enact legislation to impose reloading licenses and to define unlicensed reloading as a crime. According to Article IV of CIFTA, “State Parties that have not yet done so shall adopt the necessary legislative or other measures to establish as criminal offenses under their domestic law the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related materials.”

The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATFE) charges $10 per year for a license to manufacture most ammunition. Also under existing law, the premises of firearm and ammunition manufacturers may be inspected without notice once per year by the BATFE, and an unlimited number of times in cases involving a criminal investigation. Thus, anyone who reloads ammunition would be taxed and subject to home inspection by the federal government.

Reloaders are not the only ones who would be required to have a manufacturing license. So would every company or individual that makes any part of a firearm or an accessory. In fact, so would almost every firearm owner in the nation.

CIFTA Article I requires licensing for the manufacture of “other related materials.” These are defined as “any component, part, or replacement part of a firearm, or an accessory which can be attached to a firearm.”

That definition straightforwardly includes all spare firearm parts. It also includes accessories that are attached to firearms, such as scopes, ammunition magazines, sights, recoil pads, bipods and slings.

Current U.S. law requires a license to manufacture a firearm, with a “firearm” being defined as the receiver--however, no federal license is needed to make other parts of a firearm, such as barrels or stocks.

But CIFTA’s plain language requires federal licensing of the manufacturers and sellers of barrels, stocks, screws, springs and everything else that is used to make firearms.

Likewise, the manufacture of all accessories--such as scopes, sights, slings, bipods and so on--would have to be licensed.

In the United States, the manufacture of a firearm or ammunition for one’s personal use does not require a license, since the licensing requirements apply to persons who “engage in the business” by engaging in repeated transactions for profit. (18 U.S. Code sec. 923(a).)

Yet CIFTA would require licensing for everyone.

Many, perhaps most, firearm owners occasionally tinker with their guns. They might replace a worn-out spring or install a better barrel. Or they might add accessories such as a scope, a recoil pad or a sling. All of these simple activities would require a government license. The CIFTA definition of “Illicit manufacturing” is “the manufacture or assembly of firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related materials.” (Emphasis added.)

Even if putting an attachment on a firearm were not considered in itself to be “assembly,” the addition of most components necessarily requires some assembly; for example, scope rings consist of several pieces that must be assembled. Replacing one’s grip panels requires, at the least, the use of screws.

Because the definition of “manufacturing” is so broad, nearly all gun owners would eventually be required to obtain a manufacturing license.

CIFTA mandates that “State Parties that have not yet done so shall adopt the necessary legislative or other measures to establish as criminal offenses under their domestic law the illicit manufacturing of and trafficking in firearms, ammunition, explosives, and other related materials … the criminal offenses established pursuant to the foregoing paragraph shall include participation in, association or conspiracy to commit, attempts to commit, and aiding, abetting, facilitating, and counseling the commission of said offenses.”

Yet the preamble of CIFTA says: “... this Convention does not commit State Parties to enact legislation or regulations pertaining to firearms ownership, possession, or trade of a wholly domestic character.”

Does the preamble negate the comprehensive licensing system that CIFTA demands? Not really. The exemptions are for “ownership, possession, or trade.” There is no exemption for “manufacturing.” As detailed above, “manufacturing” is defined broadly enough as to include the home manufacture of ammunition, as well as repair of one’s own firearm, or assembling an accessory for attachment to one’s firearm.

Notably, even if CIFTA were read so that the “does not commit” language also pertained to manufacturing, there is nothing that prevents a state party from choosing to enact manufacturing regulations on its own accord.

The nations that have ratified CIFTA so far have not necessarily fully implemented the literal requirements of language regarding firearms and related material manufacturing. It is hardly unusual for nations to make a show of ratifying a treaty, but then do little to carry out the treaty’s requirements. However, in a culture such as the United States, with a strong commitment to the rule of law, CIFTA might have greater practical effect.

If ratified by the Senate, CIFTA would become the law of the land. Would the BATFE then be empowered to write regulations implementing the convention--without waiting for Congress to pass a new statute?

Reloaders are not the only ones who would be required to have a manufacturing license. So would every company or individual that makes any part of a firearm or an accessory. In fact, so would almost every firearm owner in the nation.

If a treaty is “self-executing,” then it is an independent source of authority for domestic regulations. By traditional views of international law, CIFTA is not self-executing, since its language anticipates that ratifying governments will have to enact future laws to comply with CIFTA.

On the other hand, CIFTA does not explicitly declare itself to be non-self-executing. Harold Koh, who has been nominated as legal adviser to the U.S. Department of State, has challenged the doctrine of “so-called self-executing treaties” and argues that the Supreme Court decisions creating the doctrine are incorrect. (100 Yale Law Journal, pages 2360-61, 2383-84; see also 35 University of California at Davis Law Review, page 1111 n. 114; 35 Houston Law Review, page 666.)

Rather, Koh writes, legislatures “should ratify treaties with a presumption that they are self-executing.” Further, domestic courts should “construe domestic statutes consistently with international law” and “should employ international human rights norms to guide interpretation of domestic constitutional norms.”(106 Yale Law Journal, page 2658 n. 297.) As detailed in last month’s issue of America’s 1st Freedom, Koh considers stringent gun control to be a very important international human right (July 2009, p. 32).

In Koh’s view, even when Congress has not created a statute to implement a treaty, courts should recognize a right of private plaintiffs to bring lawsuits under the treaty. (100 Yale Law Journal, pages 2383-84.) Thus, Koh and his allies could argue that Senate ratification of CIFTA trumps the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act, which outlaws abusive lawsuits against gun manufacturers and stores.

Suppose that the Senate, when ratifying CIFTA, added specific reservations declaring that CIFTA is not self-executing, that CIFTA authorizes no additional regulations and that CIFTA does not authorize any new lawsuits. The United States executive branch, under Koh’s guidance, might ignore the reservations. When the Senate added a reservation to another treaty, Koh wrote, “Many scholars question persuasively whether the United States declaration has either domestic or international legal effect.” (111 Harvard Law Review, pages 1828-29 n. 24.)

Ultimately, the question of whether BATFE can promulgate regulations under CIFTA might be decided in court cases. One way for a court to resolve the issue would be to acknowledge that federal statutes already authorized regulation of manufacturing, and that CIFTA, as the latter-enacted law, simply expanded the definition of manufacturing so that the licensing requirement now applies to persons who are not engaged in the firearm business, and to manufacture or assembly of firearms attachments and spare parts.

It is not hard to foresee Obama-appointed federal judges upholding massive new BATFE gun control regulations, especially when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the State Department’s top legal adviser insist to the courts that the expanded federal regulations are necessary for the United States to comply with its international law obligations.

CIFTA does not specifically require gun registration. But once you impose manufacturing licenses, registration comes along for the ride. Existing federal regulations for manufacturers of firearms and ammunition require that manufacturers keep records of all products they produce, and these records must be available for government inspection.

Thus, those who reload ammunition would have to keep records of every round they made and gun owners would have to keep a record of everything they “assembled” (e.g., putting a scope on a rifle). These records would then be open to BATFE inspection.

Earlier this year, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., (formerly a gun criminal for the terrorist group the Black Panthers), introduced H.R. 45, to set up a national licensing and registration system for handguns and for self-loading long guns. As implemented under the direction of President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and State Department legal adviser Koh, CIFTA could go even further--it also covers ammunition reloading as well as long guns that are not semi-automatic.

Further, CIFTA could be used to impose national licensing, registration and taxation of gun owners without members of Congress having to cast a vote that explicitly creates such laws. Indeed, because treaties need to be ratified by two-thirds of the Senate, yet need no approval from the House of Representatives, the House could be cut completely out of the law-making process altogether.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.