Gun rights: why UN small arms treaty is another land mine for Obama

The final version of the UN Arms Trade Treaty, aimed at keeping small arms from terrorists and rogue regimes, is due Friday. US gun rights advocates reject assurances the treaty would not infringe on their rights.

Gerald Herbert/AP
President Obama speaks at a fundraiser at the House of Blues in New Orleans, Wednesday, July 25.

After last week’s shooting in Colorado, President Obama’s remarks Wednesday night about gun violence were a rare departure for a president who usually steers clear of the subject. Now another gun issue is coming to a head that the president likely would just as soon avoid: the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

The treaty, whose final version is due out on Friday, aims to regulate the $60 billion international trade in small arms in an effort to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists and rogue regimes. But gun owners in the United States are on high alert over concerns that the treaty could undermine their Second Amendment rights.

Advocates of the treaty say that they need not worry. The US Constitution trumps international law, and the treaty will not affect domestic gun ownership, they say. But it’s not clear anything can mollify agitated gun owners, even the signatures of 58 senators on letters circulated by colleagues opposing the treaty. If Mr. Obama were to sign the treaty and send it to the Senate, it would fall far short of the two-thirds majority required for ratification.

Congressional opponents are trying to make sure the treaty never gets to the Senate.  

“Disguised as an international arms control treaty to fight against terrorism and international crime syndicates, the UN small arms treaty is in fact a massive, global gun-control scheme,” Rep. Paul Broun (R) of Georgia says in a recorded message distributed Tuesday by the Colorado-based National Association for Gun Rights.

For many conservatives, the UN arms treaty pushes two hot buttons – the UN, which some fear has the potential to supersede US national sovereignty, and gun rights.

Assurances from the Obama administration that it will protect US domestic gun rights in the UN treaty aren’t enough, says Tom Zawistowski, president of the Ohio Liberty Coalition, a state-wide tea party organization. He worries that Obama can simply put the treaty in force without Senate approval, just as he put Ohio Attorney General Richard Cordray in charge of the controversial Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in a recess appointment, bypassing Senate confirmation.

“I’d put gun rights way at the top” of issues tea partyers care about, Mr. Zawistowski says. “That’s really high on the emotional ladder.”

On Tuesday, the UN Arms Trade Treaty Conference released a draft of the treaty to widespread criticism that it was ambiguous and contained loopholes. Even groups supportive of the treaty’s concept voiced concern.

"All the core provisions of this draft treaty still have major loopholes which will simply ratify the status quo, instead of setting a high international standard that will change state practices and save lives on the ground,” said Peter Herby, head of the arms unit of the International Committee of the Red Cross, according to Agence France-Presse.

But on the issue of protecting civilian gun rights in the US, humanitarian groups watching the treaty negotiations were reassuring.

"This treaty is only about the international transfer of civilian weapons,” says Scott Stedjan, a senior policy adviser at Oxfam America. “A transfer means when a weapon both crosses a national boundary and there's a change of title or control. US gun rights do not involve weapons flowing from one border to another border – it's only about things domestically within the United States. The Second Amendment applies to the use of weapons within the United States."

Mr. Stedjan said that once the National Rifle Association (NRA) sees the treaty text, it will see that it does not pose a threat to individual gun rights.

Suzanne Trimel, media director of Amnesty International USA, accused the NRA of sowing fear.

“The goal of this treaty is to keep weapons out of the hands of countries that we know are going to use them to commit human rights abuses and atrocities, like in Syria, like mass rapes in the Democratic Republic of Congo,” said Ms. Trimel. "The fearmongering of the NRA should not get in the way of the proper argument, which is stopping human rights abuses and atrocities."

The NRA declined a request for comment.

Monitor intern Kimberly Railey contributed to this report.

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