The National Rifle Association, which is battling a raft of gun control measures on Capitol Hill, also has an international fight on its hand as it gears up to oppose a U.N. treaty designed to restrict the flow of arms to conflict zones.
Negotiations open Monday in New York on the Arms Trade Treaty, which would require countries to determine whether weapons they sell would be used to commit serious human rights violations, terrorism or transnational organized crime.
The gun lobby fears that the treaty would be used to regulate civilian weapons. Human rights activists counter that it would reduce the trafficking of weapons, including small arms such as the ubiquitous AK-47 assault rifle, to outlaw regimes and rebel groups engaged in atrocities against civilian populations.
“This treaty is a common-sense alignment of the interests of governments, law-abiding citizens and individuals all over the world, who deserve the right to live free from harm,” said Michelle A. Ringuette, chief of campaigns and programs at Amnesty International USA. “Any step toward restraining the illicit sale and transfer of weapons used to commit horrific crimes is a good move forward, and the world could use a lot more steps in the direction of ending human rights abuses.”
The Obama administration, which has wavered on the treaty, signaled Friday that it was willing to support the accord. “The United States is steadfast in its commitment to achieve a strong and effective Arms Trade Treaty that helps address the adverse effects of the international arms trade on global peace and stability,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said in a statement. “We will not support any treaty that would be inconsistent with U.S. law and the rights of American citizens under our Constitution, including the Second Amendment.”
The NRA is among the treaty’s most vocal opponents and a founder of the World Forum on Shooting Activities, an international coalition of gun rights activists and gun manufacturers who plan to speak against the treaty.
“What we really object to is the inclusion of civilian firearms within the scope of the ATT,” said Tom Mason, the group’s executive secretary and a lawyer who has represented the NRA at U.N. meetings for nearly two decades. “This is a treaty that really needs to address the transfer of large numbers of military weapons that leads to human rights abuses. We have submitted language that you can define what a civilian firearm is.”
The NRA also argues that the treaty could infringe on gun rights as understood in the United States and could force Americans onto an international registry.
Activists say the NRA wants to gut the treaty. “The NRA claim that there is such a thing as ‘civilian weapons’ and that these can and need to be treated differently from military weapons under the Arms Trade Treaty is — to put it politely — the gun lobby’s creativity on full display,” Ringuette said in a statement. “There is no such distinction. To try to create one would create a loophole that would render the treaty inoperative, as anyone could claim that he or she was in the business of trading ‘civilian weapons.’ ”
The American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights said in a white paper last month that “it is unlikely the proposed treaty would compromise Second Amendment rights,” and if it did, “the treaty itself would be void.”
The treaty, which has been years in the making, would cover battle tanks, artillery, combat aircraft, warships and missiles as well as small arms and light weapons. Global sales of conventional arms reach tens of billions of dollars annually, and the biggest players are the United States, China and Russia.
The treaty lacks real enforcement mechanisms, but activists said it could be used to name and shame arms exporters who violate its terms.
The United Nations seemed on the verge of adopting a draft treaty last July when the United States suspended negotiations on the last day, and China and Russia, which had their own reservations, also pulled out.
The Obama administration said it had a number of technical issues, but activists said there was also a failure of political nerve several months before the presidential election. During the negotiations, the NRA organized a letter signed by a group of 51 Democratic and Republican senators opposing the treaty. The senators warned President Obama that they would “oppose ratification of an Arms Trade Treaty presented to the Senate that in any way restricts the rights of law-abiding U.S. citizens to manufacture, assemble, possess, transfer or purchase firearms, ammunition and related items.”
After the election, the administration agreed to return to the negotiating table along with China and Russia. Officials at Amnesty and other organizations said they were confident that China and Russia would support the final draft, which is expected to be negotiated next week.
The NRA seems reconciled to the likelihood that a treaty will pass. “I tend to think they will do something,” Mason said. “They are just desperate for a product. They want to bring something home.”
If the NRA loses this month in New York, the organization would probably shift its focus to the Senate to prevent ratification of the pact.