By Chris W. Cox, NRA-ILA Executive Director
Late on July 27, when word came out that the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) had failed to reach a “consensus” agreement on a draft treaty, American gun owners breathed a well-deserved sigh of relief.
For six years, globalists at the U.N. had schemed with anti-gun organizations on how to get U.S. gun owners under their thumbs. Since 2006, there have been four “preparatory committees” and two “experts’ groups” to lay the groundwork for a treaty. The NRA made its voice heard at every step of the negotiations, warning negotiators that we would oppose any attempt to regulate civilian firearms. And in the end, it was the NRA, along with our elected representatives, that forced the U.N. into doing what it does best—nothing.
This battle didn’t even need to happen. In 2006, the Bush administration, led by then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. John Bolton, made clear that the United States did not support the formation of the ATT. Standing with U.S. gun owners, the administration cast the only vote against the U.N. resolution calling for movement toward a treaty.
We can “thank” President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for breathing new life into the treaty process. In October 2009, the Obama administration reversed U.S. policy when Clinton announced, “The United States is committed to actively pursuing a strong and robust treaty that contains the highest possible, legally binding standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons.” Following the reversal, one representative from a pro-treaty group said, “Without U.S. support, the process may have been formally agreed in the sense of getting a majority vote, but negotiations would not have been conducted at a seriously high level.”
No one should be surprised that negotiations that never should have started led to a treaty that started badly. In one draft statement of “Principles,” the negotiators went out of their way to protect “the inherent right of all States to individual or collective self-defense” (emphasis added), but made no mention of the individual right to personal self-defense. Here’s a free civics lesson for U.N. delegates: Governments don’t have rights, they have powers granted to them by their individual citizens. Individuals have pre-existing rights that do not come from governments, but should be respected by them nonetheless.
Lacking any understanding of those basic principles, treaty proponents tried zealously to ensure that civilian firearms were regulated under the treaty. As one of the treaty’s most fervent promoters, Mexico laid that intention bare in an official statement issued at the start of the July talks: “This treaty must cover all type of conventional weapons, without differentiation on its [sic] supposed use. Criminals do not differentiate between weapons manufactured for shooting sport and those developed for military snipers when they intend to kill. We cannot make this differentiation either.” (In one of the conference’s more bizarre developments, Mexico briefly requested that the scope of the treaty cover “non-explosive” weapons—presumably aiming to control bows, arrows and swords—until ridicule over that demand forced them to retreat.)
Of course, if you believe the anti-gun media, concerns about the treaty’s effect on civilian gun ownership are far-fetched. But while many commentators made that claim, they rarely cited actual drafts of the treaty, or the statements made by national representatives during the negotiations. That’s because the drafts and statements make clear that treaty backers absolutely intended to control civilian arms.
For example, many of the draft treaties emphasized gathering information on “end users.” That’s U.N.-speak for you and me. One draft made clear that states exporting firearms “shall conduct risk assessments … whether to grant authorizations for the transfer of conventional arms under the scope of this treaty … taking into account all relevant information, including the nature and potential use of the items to be transferred and the verified end-user in the country of final destination.”
In other words, before a German pistol or Italian shotgun could be imported for sale at your local gun store, Germany or Italy would have to know the “end user” and calculate whether the gun’s “potential use” poses a “risk.”
And what are the “risks” to assess? In various drafts, governments would have had to consider whether arms might “be diverted to unauthorized end users” or “the illicit market”; whether they would “support” or “encourage” terrorist acts or “provoke, prolong or aggravate acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace”; or whether they could be used in “gender-based violence” or to inflict “human suffering.” Anti-gun activists claim that gun ownership does all of these things, so any of these provisions could be abused by foreign governments to shut off exports to law-abiding Americans.
Similarly, importing countries would have been required to “take measures to ensure that appropriate and relevant information is provided, upon request, to the exporting State Party to assist the exporting State in its criteria assessment and to assist in verifying end users.” To facilitate this, the draft would have required governments to maintain records on “end users” for “a minimum of ten years.”
That is nothing less than an international gun registration scheme. Considering our own government’s inability to protect citizens’ private information—or even classified intelligence information—who knows where “end user” information could end up once it’s shared with foreign countries? If the U.S. refused to keep information on “end users” based on those concerns, other countries could simply block exports to American importers. And even if they didn’t, the new bureaucratic requirements would drive the prices of imported guns out of most gun owners’ reach.
Just as oppressive were calls for an international ammunition record-keeping scheme. This notion was so absurd that even the State Department rejected it, noting that “Our own experience in regulating domestic transfers has shown that there is little utility for law enforcement in imposing the same controls on ammunition transfers as we do on arms.”
Fortunately, the NRA long ago recognized the threat these U.N. efforts pose to America’s gun owners. For nearly 20 years, we have been intimately involved in opposing U.N. gun control. So when the conference began, we and our allies on Capitol Hill were ready to make your voice heard.
Days before the conference began, 130 members of the U.S. House of Representatives sent Obama and Clinton a letter outlining their opposition to the ATT. The lawmakers warned the President that they still hold the purse strings, and “will maintain the power to oppose the appropriation or authorization of any taxpayer funds to implement a flawed ATT.”
Then, as he did during an ATT preparatory committee session in 2011, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre went before the conference personally to deliver an impassioned defense of civilian gun owners. He made NRA’s position perfectly clear: “Any treaty that includes civilian firearms ownership in its scope will be met with the NRA’s greatest force of opposition.” And hundreds of thousands of NRA supporters signed a petition declaring “independence from any United Nations treaty that would strip [them] of [their] constitutional Right to Keep and Bear Arms.”
Our efforts reached their peak in the closing days of the conference. As draft proposals flew in New York, U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., mustered 50 of his colleagues in voicing Second Amendment concerns to Obama and Clinton. In a letter, the 51 senators noted, “we strongly encourage your administration not only to uphold our country’s constitutional protections of civilian firearms ownership, but to ensure—if necessary, by breaking consensus at the July conference—that the treaty will explicitly recognize the legitimacy of lawful activities associated with firearms, including but not limited to the right of self-defense.
As members of the United States Senate, we will oppose the ratification of any Arms Trade Treaty that falls short of this standard.”
If the drafters of the treaty had intended not to include civilian arms, these demands would have been easy to meet. Instead, the day after the letter was sent, the conference ended without a treaty.
This victory is important, but it may only be temporary. Following failure at the conference, several parties to the negotiations have declared that they’ll pursue new options for moving the seemingly undead treaty forward.
One of those options is to seek a U.N. General Assembly vote endorsing some draft of the ATT. A spokesperson for the British delegation noted, “An arms-trade treaty is coming—not today—but soon.” Mexico echoed this view in reading a statement by 90 nations at the closing of the conference that made clear their determination “to secure an Arms Trade Treaty as soon as possible.” And the conference chairman, Ambassador Roberto Garcia Moritán of Argentina, has said, “We certainly are going to have a treaty in 2012.”
The threat can’t be overstated. While a treaty cannot be ratified in the U.S. without a two-thirds Senate majority, an anti-gun president could still use even an unratified treaty to claim an “international mandate” for new U.S. controls. And even a treaty that’s never signed by the U.S. could still be exploited by countries around the world to restrict firearms exports to American customers.
While the future of the treaty is unclear, one thing is certain: Whatever avenue these self-defense opponents pursue, your NRA will work to stop them. The best thing gun owners can do now is to vote out the people who got us into the treaty negotiations in the first place: Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Our Second Amendment freedom depends on it.