The folks at United Nations headquarters in New York City, and our “allies” at Number 10 Downing Street in London, must be rubbing their hands with glee. Gun control groups here and abroad likewise are at last quietly cheering. Why? After a decade and a half of pushing unsuccessfully to secure America’s support for a legally-binding, international instrument to regulate the marketing, transfer and brokering in firearms, they are now on the brink of success. The process of formally negotiating an Arms Trade Treaty (“ATT”) now has Washington’s seal of approval; announced October 14th by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
It was not always thus.
In the summer of 2001, the UN formally launched its multi-year effort to institutionalize its role as regulator of international transfers of firearms; something it had coveted openly since the mid-1990s. In July 2001, John Bolton had been serving as President George W. Bush’s undersecretary of state for arms control and international security affairs for barely two months. It is this office at the state department that is responsible for issues ranging from nuclear disarmament to land mine eradication. When the UN began its foray into “small arms and light weapons” (a term that incorporates virtually every type, size and model of firearm) in the mid-90s, the issue fell into the lap of whoever occupied that office.
In one of his first public addresses after being sworn in as undersecretary, Bolton delivered the opening statement for the United States at the UN arms conference on July 9, 2001. His blunt words shocked many of the delegates present. The message he delivered made crystal clear, with reference to our constitutionally-guaranteed “right to keep and bear arms,” that the US would not be a party to any international effort that would directly or indirectly infringe that fundamental right.
Over the next five years, in meeting after meeting, the US was true to the words Bolton delivered in 2001. Refusing to bow to intense pressure from many of our “allies,” including most notably the UK, the US opposed and even vetoed numerous efforts to afford the UN any legally-binding power to regulate the “international” trafficking in firearms. The Bush Administration realized that doing so would tie US policy makers’ hands in supporting certain arms transfers in our own national security interests. Moreover, and more relevant for Second Amendment purposes, a legally-binding instrument purporting to regulate illicit international transfers of firearms, would necessarily touch domestic activities. For example, in order to know and regulate international transfers, the UN folks would have to know what firearms were being manufactured, stocked, and purported to be transferred within each country.
The playing field now has changed dramatically. We have a president, a secretary of state, and an undersecretary philosophically in synch with the UN and its member nations who have been clamoring for the US to join the march to an ATT. In her statement of October 14th announcing Washington’s reversal on this issue, Clinton made not even passing or indirect reference to the Constitution, much less the Second Amendment; a position so clearly and forcefully employed by Bolton when defending our interests against the international “community.”
The irony in all this is that the US maintains the most rigorous and consistent legal controls on the export and import of firearms of any nation. If those nations pushing for an international arms trade treaty were sincerely concerned with tightening such controls internationally, all they would have to do would be to adopt regulations and laws as we have in the US already. But that’s not their true agenda.
The real agenda of these folks at the UN, and in London, Tokyo, Brasilia, and the other capitals around the world of nations pushing the US to “come on board,” is not international regulation, but limiting the freedom we enjoy within the United States to keep and bear arms.