Despite Obama pledge, Democrats show little enthusiasm for CIFTA treaty on gun trafficking

President Obama and Mexico President Calderon hold a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of The White House.
President Obama and Mexico President Calderon hold a joint press conference in the Rose Garden of The White House. (Gerald Martineau For Twp - The Washington Post)
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By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 10:47 PM

During his first visit to Mexico, President Obama pledged to do more to keep U.S. guns out of the hands of murderous drug cartels. One promise: to seek approval of a long-stalled treaty against illegal weapons sales.

"I am urging the Senate in the United States to ratify an inter-American treaty known as CIFTA, to curb small-arms trafficking that is a source of so many of the weapons used in this drug war," the president said at the April 2009 news conference.

To the Mexicans, that might have seemed an easy lift. The U.S. government already complies with the treaty's provisions. No U.S. laws would have to change, officials say. And some phrases in the treaty had been proposed by the National Rifle Association.

But the symbolically important treaty has gone nowhere, offering a lesson in the political sensitivities of taking even modest legal steps to crack down on gun-smuggling to Mexico. While the Obama administration has taken other actions, such as sending anti-trafficking teams to the border, neither the White House nor Congress has pushed the treaty, which the gun lobby opposes.

Perhaps the least eager to see a vote: Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), the Senate majority leader, who is battling to keep his seat in a strongly pro-gun state.

"I don't sense that the administration has really pushed to do anything with it this term. . . . Their approach to the gun issue, since Obama's been in, has been to not say the word 'guns,'" said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

Mexican authorities have begged the U.S. government to do more to curb the flow of high-powered rifles to drug traffickers. It is virtually impossible to buy such arms legally in Mexico.

Both governments say that thousands of U.S. weapons have been sent illegally south of the border in recent years - although gun-rights groups say that there's no evidence they make up the bulk of cartels' arsenals.

CIFTA requires countries to criminalize the illegal manufacture and import or export of weapons. In addition, nations have to ensure that guns are marked with manufacturers' names when they're produced or imported, as U.S. law has required since 1968. The convention also calls on countries to share information on things such as trafficking routes.

Under CIFTA, "you can't sell a weapon to a country where it's not legal. How controversial is that?" said Jonathan Winer, who was the U.S. chief negotiator in 1997. He was so eager to assuage gun-rights advocates that he discussed negotiating positions with representatives of the NRA.

"We actually had them give us language which said, this shall not apply to, or affect, the legitimate rights of hunters and sportsmen," Winer recalled.

President Clinton signed the treaty in 1997, and sent it to the Senate the following year. Its title is the Inter-American Convention Against the Illicit Manufacturing of and Trafficking in Firearms, Amunition, Explosives and Other Related Materials.

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