The Arms Trade Treaty Will Not Affect Your Ability to Buy Guns

In a three-day meeting organized by the UN Institute for Disarmament Research (UNIDIR) the European Union, and the Government of the Republic of Indonesia, representatives of nearly 30 East Asian and Pacific countries are gathering with regional and international organizations to discuss the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT).

This is the latest in a series of regional meetings UNIDIR is conducting to develop concrete recommendations on the future Treaty and to assist States with preparation for implementation.

Up for negotiation and adoption in 2012, the ATT grew out of the recognition that while the current patchwork of national and international restrictions on arms exports and imports provides some oversights; there is insufficient regulation of the global trade in conventional weapons relative to its volume and impact. The black market trade in arms is largely fueled by diversions from legal transaction; any effort to mitigate the illegal trade, therefore, must be rooted in regulating legal transfers. While the treaty specifics are still being hammered out – including whether small arms and/or ammunition will be covered – the ATT is expected to include verification and enforcement mechanisms, which were missing from the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons.

The urgent need for a robust ATT is highlighted by the recent reports of violent reprisals against protestors in the Middle East and North Africa. Should the ATT pass, it will require signatories to refuse transfers of conventional arms if there is a substantial risk of serious human rights violations, war crimes, or terrorist acts. Under the ATT, governments would be held responsible for the end use of weapons they sell internationally, which may induce weapons exporters to be more cautious in their choice of trading partners.

However, there are several hurdles that must be overcome before the 2012 conference. The United States has insisted that the ATT be adopted by consensus, rather than by majority. Designing a consensus treaty that is practical and non-political will be a challenge. The process is made more difficult by competing interests among member states, particularly Russia and China.

Should the ATT be adopted at the UN level, it would then need to be ratified by member states before it would become binding. In the United States, that task falls to the Senate. While the ATT is intended to address the trade in all conventional arms, it has faced opposition in the United States from gun rights activists, who claim that the ATT is a “gun-grab” that will negate the Second Amendment.

In a particularly inflammatory piece in Forbes, Larry Bell provides an overview of what he calls the “Small Arms Treaty,” which will “almost certainly force the U.S. to …

1.     Enact tougher licensing requirements, creating additional bureaucratic red tape for legal firearms ownership.

In reality, the Arms Trade Treaty will have no impact on domestic legal arms sales in the United States. This is something that the United States insisted upon as a condition of joining the talks. In October 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally championed the insertion of a provision in a General Assembly resolution about the ATT that gave countries the exclusive authority to regulate arms within their borders.

2.     Confiscate and destroy all “unauthorized” civilian firearms (exempting those owned by our government of course).

This is an intentional misunderstanding of the word “unauthorized,” which is generally understood to mean illegal civilian ownership of firearms. The United States government will not be required to take guns away from law-abiding Americans under the ATT.

3.     Ban the trade, sale and private ownership of all semi-automatic weapons (any that have magazines even though they still operate in the same one trigger pull – one single “bang” manner as revolvers, a simple fact the ant-gun [sic] media never seem to grasp).

The Arms Trade Treaty will not regulate domestic sales of firearms. Its focus is instead on the control of the legal, international trade in conventional weapons, with the goal of keeping these weapons out of the hands of human rights abusers and organized criminal enterprises.

4.     Create an international gun registry, clearly setting the stage for full-scale gun confiscation.

This is, again, fear mongering. The ATT has no intent of creating an international gun registry, and certainly won’t be confiscating guns. Mr. Bell may be conflating the ATT with a May 2011 Meeting of Government Experts under the aegis of the UN Programme of Action (PoA) on Small Arms and Light Weapons, where experts discussed effective marking, record-keeping, and tracing practices – which the U.S. already does admirably.

5.     In short, overriding our national sovereignty, and in the process, providing license for the federal government to assert preemptive powers over state regulatory powers guaranteed by the Tenth Amendment in addition to our Second Amendment rights.”

It would take a constitutional amendment to achieve what Mr. Bell proposes. For those unfamiliar with the American federal system, passing an amendment requires the approval of two thirds of the House of Representatives, and ratification by two thirds of the states. Given the current political climate, this is purely a rabble-rousing fantasy.

Still, while Mr. Bell’s list may seem melodramatic, the National Rifle Association’s legislative arm has been gearing up to fight the Arms Trade Treaty, and has a strong track record of influencing Congressional debates that touch on Second Amendment rights, however peripherally. Depending on the timing of the UN conference in relation to the 2012 elections, the political will necessary for ratification may be hard to come by in the U.S. Without the engagement of the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter, the Arms Trade Treaty may yet go nowhere.