Will the NRA kill a global arms trade treaty?
As the world’s governments meet at the United Nations this month to craft a global Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), one organization is making its voice heard loud and clear: the National Rifle Association. If you thought the NRA had restricted itself to rolling back gun regulations within U.S. borders, you might be surprised at the group’s intense interest in the U.N. proceedings. But on closer inspection, it’s clear that opposition to measures making it harder to arm tyrants or pour weapons into war zones is in keeping with the NRA’s overriding ideology: We love guns, and we hate treaties. That was the thrust of the remarks that NRA Executive Vice-President Wayne LaPierre made this week at the U.N. conference negotiating the Arms Trade Treaty, which he said would be “an offense to any American who has ever breathed our free air.”
LaPierre’s rhetoric may be over the top, but his organization has a detailed position on the ATT that is best encapsulated in a July 2 NRA-instigated letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed by 130 members of the House of Representatives. It makes the proposed treaty sound like an end to life as we know it, one that would “pose significant threats to our national security, foreign policy, and economic interests as well as our constitutional rights.”
The letter begins with a predictable ode to the Second Amendment right to bear arms, arguing that any treaty on the arms trade should “not cover small arms, light weapons or related materials such as firearms ammunition.” Since these are precisely the weapons that account for most of the hundreds of thousands of deaths caused by war and repression each year, leaving them out is tantamount to gutting the treaty. But that’s not enough for the NRA and its allies. The agreement must also “expressly recognize the individual right of personal self-defense, as well as the legitimacy of hunting, sports shooting, and other lawful activities pertaining to private ownership of firearms and related materials.”
This aspect of the NRA’s posture is particularly ironic given that the treaty makes it clear it is only intended to regulate the transfer of arms across international borders, not their sale within individual countries. The NRA has set up a straw man, and it is using its lobbying muscle to knock it down again – all in the interest of killing off the ATT.
In fairness, the NRA seems open to something called an “arms trade treaty” as long as it doesn’t actually do anything. That puts it shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran, Syria and North Korea, the most obstructionist participants in this month’s ATT conference. The NRA’s bottom line is that the agreement place “no new requirements for action on the United States.”
The truth is that even a fairly robust ATT would ask far less of the United States than of virtually any other country in the world. The U.S. already has regulations for arms exports licensing, reporting and – at least for major weapons systems – congressional sign-off. It regulates arms brokers and has provisions in law for curbing sales to human rights abusers and conflict zones. These restrictions are already more rigorous than those in most nations, but they need to be enforced far more consistently, and efforts should be made to roll back attempts by the industry to undermine them. Ideally, an Arms Trade Treaty would encourage decision makers in Washington to observe the spirit and letter of U.S. law, but it wouldn’t entail any vast new regulatory structure. This would be a very small price to pay for an international agreement that helps keeps arms out of the hands of tyrants, terrorists and aggressor nations.
Getting a consensus within the U.N. on a treaty covering the full range of instruments of destruction and setting tough legal limits on their transfer to irresponsible users will be hard enough without the NRA’s interference. As the world’s leading arms exporting nation, the United States has a special responsibility to play a leadership role in beating back opposition to a meaningful treaty. Although the Obama administration has supported the treaty in principle so far, one major weakness in the current U.S. position is its unwillingness to support regulation of ammunition sales, a logical choke point in stemming the violence in wars being waged with small arms and light weapons. The U.S. needs to press for the best possible treaty now, before an historic opportunity to finally rein in the global arms trade is allowed to slip away.
As for the NRA, it will oppose the agreement unless it is a treaty in name only, and even then its support can’t be counted upon. The Obama administration would be in a far better position, both in terms of politics and policy, if it clearly explained why it supports a strong ATT – and why the agreement has absolutely nothing to do with domestic gun possession.