NRA Takes Aim at Weapons Treaty

The gun lobby worries about the reach of a pact on conventional arms.

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Delegations from almost 200 countries convened at the United Nations this month to come up with a new treaty that would regulate international trade in conventional weapons. The effort, supported by the Obama administration, has very vocal opposition: the American gun lobby.

Proponents of the Arms Trade Treaty argue that inadequate controls over the international arms market result in armed violence against civilians by human rights violators, criminals, gangs, warlords, and terrorists. The treaty would require governments to deny weapons transfers to states that fit certain criteria, and to develop national laws and regulations governing imports and exports.

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The United States, the world's top importer and exporter of conventional weapons, already has a comprehensive tracking and export control system. "We're simply bringing other countries up to our standards," says Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "This treaty, in all likelihood, will not require the United States to do anything more than it is already doing."

But the American gun lobby says the ATT represents a threat to the Second Amendment.

"Depending on the scope of this treaty, it could impact gun registration requirements in the United States, it could enact a ban on commonly owned firearms, it could require tracking and registration of ammunition purchases, and it could create a global gun control bureaucracy within the U.N.," says Andrew Arulanandam, director of public affairs at the National Rifle Association. Arulanandam says the NRA will lobby the Senate to reject ratification if the president signs the treaty.

Kimball says the regulation of domestic gun possession is totally outside the scope of the treaty. Sarah Parker, senior researcher with the Switzerland-based Small Arms Survey and an adviser to the Australian delegation to the ATT talks, agrees. "There is no attempt in the Arms Trade Treaty to control the internal regulation of weapons, only international transfers," she says. Both experts say there is misinformation about the effort.

Still, the Senate and House Appropriations committees have voted to restrict government funding for advancing the ATT. And last month, 130 House members sent a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, arguing that the treaty must not cover small arms, light weapons, or firearms ammunition. They also say it should recognize the individual right of personal self-defense and the legitimacy of hunting, sports shooting, and other lawful activities.

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Conventional arms is a broad category, ranging from military systems like tanks, aircraft, and missiles to civilian firearms. Leaving out civilian arms would create a big loophole, experts say. "You have a very big problem making a firm distinction between military and civilian in a legal context" because different states define and regulate arms differently, Parker says.

For example, in the United Kingdom, only military personnel are allowed to have handguns, while in the United States an individual may even own a semiautomatic rifle. Parker says it would be impossible to come up with a universal definition for military arms that would be comprehensive or effective in preventing irresponsible transfers—the ultimate goal of the treaty.

But the NRA vows to keep the pressure on, and observers are waiting to see whether that will affect the U.S. delegation's position on key issues over the next three weeks of negotiations.