Obama and the United Nations are coming for your guns. For real this time.
What’s that? You hadn’t heard? Monday’s global summit of “states parties to the Arms Trade Treaty” in Cancun was not already marked on your calendar, the August 24 start date circled in blood-red ink? It must have something to do with where you’re getting your news from.
In 2013, after nearly a decade of effort (and opposition from the Bush administration), the U.N. adopted an Arms Trade Treaty to curtail illicit sales of war weapons, including tanks, fighter jets, warships, missiles, artillery, and small arms, chiefly to keep them out of the hands of rogue governments and militant groups. But that last category of weapons riles Second Amendment activists, who are concerned that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is part of a secret globalist agenda to winnow away their constitutional right.
Under President Obama, American leadership helped the treaty get enough signatures to enter into force — as much force as the U.N. can muster, anyway — late last year. This week’s meetings in Mexico are when the 72 ratifying states will discuss amendments to and enforcement of the agreement. Notably, the U.S. will not be among them. It’s signed the treaty, but Congress has yet to ratify it and is unlikely to anytime soon.
Far rightwing sites and pro-gun groups have been whipping up hysteria about the treaty for years. In the run-up to the Mexico conference, their warnings have only grown more dire. “Obama Wants to Tie the UN Noose Even Tighter Around Gun Owners Necks,” Ammoland warned last week. “UN Gun Grab Enters New And Dangerous Phase,” ex-presidential candidate Bob Barr wrote on Red State. The National Association for Gun Rights, a rising conservative lobby group with ties to Rand Paul, sent shrill calls for action (and donations, of course) to its members: “NAGR President Dudley Brown expects that by the end of the summit, President Obama and his globalist allies will double-down on attempting to enforce these gun-grabbing provisions!”
In this atmosphere, the NRA — which reportedly once applied for UN observer status — has been, if not a voice of reason, then at least a voice of more subdued apprehension. “We are worried about an end-run around Congress,” spokeswoman Catherine Mortensen told The Blaze. “Barack Obama or a future anti-gun president could use ATT and international norms compliance to rationalize enacting gun control policies through executive actions, especially in the import and export realms.” That almost sounds like a fair concern, and one that’s easily fact-checked, since the treaty text is online and the debates surrounding its drafting were well-publicized.
Even among the better informed and less-conspiracy-minded, there are in fact reasons to be skeptical of the Arms Trade Treaty. As with most well-intended treaties, the language is vague. Opponents of the deal, especially the NRA, have been quick to criticize that vagueness.“For example, the most recent draft treaty includes import/export controls that would require officials in an importing country to collect information on the ‘end user’ of a firearm,” the NRA wrote in 2012:
In other words, if you bought a Beretta shotgun, you would be an “end user” and the U.S. government would have to keep a record of you and notify the Italian government about your purchase. That is gun registration. If the U.S. refuses to implement this data collection on law-abiding American gun owners, other nations might be required to ban the export of firearms to the U.S.
And it’s here that the real shenanigans begin, as the rest of the treaty text makes it clear that opponents are warping its intent to suit their own purposes. It is true that the ATT aims to keep guns (and tanks, and anti-aircraft missiles) out of the hands of “unauthorized… end users.” But contrary to the NRA’s interpretation, no one is required to provide small arms makers or their governments with specific identifying info on a gun’s ultimate owner. As the treaty now reads, exporting countries “may include end use or end user documentation” in the info they share with other treaty nations, when deemed “appropriate.” On top of that, the treaty also permits a participating country to tailor that arms-trade data “pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.” In other words, if U.S. courts see reporting “end user” information as a violation of Second Amendment rights, the U.S. won’t be able to provide that info to exporters abroad.
More importantly, guns imported to the U.S. already get registered. With very few exceptions, all firearms brought into the country have to go through a firearm dealer licensed by the ATF, and a Form 6 for the deal must be filled out in detail and filed with ATF and Customs and Border Protection. Your individual sportsman can get a special permit to directly import sporting-gun parts and ammunition for personal use — but even then, there’s a record of the importation. In all likelihood, treaty parties will treat gun stores and dealers who receive imports as the “end user” for record-keeping purposes, rather than individual customers who may buy the weapon at a point of sale months or years later.
So in a broad sense, the specter of “registration” that the NRA raises has already been the law of the land for some time. The more specific fear — that foreign governments and UN lackeys will gain lists of every Tom, Dick, and Harry who owns a Beretta — is the absurd product of scaremongering.
It’s easy to see the treaty ultimately amounting to nothing more than mood music. But gun groups are sure that Obama is dancing to that multilateral tune
Which brings us at last to the one completely valid reason for judging the ATT harshly: It’s hard to see how any such treaty will be enforceable in a meaningful way. Because of the U.N.’s principle of general respect for member nations’ sovereignty — a principle that’s made it infamously slow to react to crises and genocides — the small arms treaty is binding only on the 72 states who have ratified it. Absent from that list, as mentioned above, is the U.S. Absent, too, are China and Russia, who together with America represent three of the globe’s largest small-arms dealers. Nor have conflict-torn states like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo committed to the agreement. So the ATT, rather than hastening a One World Order, amounts to a pact among less than half the UN’s member nations, whose obligations are markedly flexible. Indeed, many disarmament advocates worry that the Mexico talks will break down over how much trading transparency participating countries will tolerate. It’s easy to see the treaty ultimately amounting to nothing more than mood music.
But gun groups are sure that Obama is dancing to that multilateral tune. They point to a 2014 White House order that vows “vigorous support for current arms control and confidence-building efforts to constrain the demand for destabilizing weapons.” Some of its language, particularly a promise that the U.S. won’t export arms if it suspects they’ll be used for war crimes or genocide, mirrors that of the ATT. That fact, along with pro-disarmament NGOs mostly successful efforts to exclude pro-gun groups like the NRA from the ATT discussions, has given conservative politicians plenty of rhetorical ammunition. “Serious questions surround the treaty regarding its implementation and its effect on our ability to aid and arm our allies,” Republican Oklahoma Senator Jim Inhofe said in a spring press release, adding that ATT “raises serious concerns regarding our Second Amendment rights.”
Here again, though, suspicions are easily debunked. White House and State Department statements offer a set of “redlines” — non-negotiable conditions for the U.S.’s support of the treaty. Those conditions state that “The Second Amendment to the Constitution must be upheld,” and “There will be no restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution.”
So why, despite the hard evidence to the contrary, do pro-gun groups and conservatives remain convinced Obama and the U.N. are selling out America? Because for them that thinking is practically ingrained. And in this case, it fits neatly with one of America’s longest running, most-durable, anti-government, pro-freedom conspiracy theories.
“We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy,” a spokesman of the John Birch Society told newspapers in 1964 while campaigning against United Air Lines’ short-lived plan to include the UN insignia on its jets. From the McCarthyite cry of “international communism” and the Birchers’ struggle against “one-world socialist government,” to the modern murmurings about Obama’s “Unified Agenda,” a strain of conservatives and libertarians (and the odd militant apocalyptic leftist) has for more than a half-century shared a sense that America’s exceptional, individual freedoms are under siege from outside collectivizing forces. In this narrative, the international interloper usually gets help from a fifth column of Europe-loving liberals to whom the real American way of life is alien and threatening.
As the historian Richard Hofstadter put it in his seminal 1964 essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” this conspiracy theorist “feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion.”
The fear that America can be sapped of its precious fluids and made just like the rest of the world has always been a fringe view, but periodically it pokes through to the political mainstream — in part because the people who hold that fear are easily motivated to vote, organize, and give money to groups, like NAGR and the NRA, that invoke the specter of international invasion.
Earlier this year, I spoke with a fellow investigative reporter who had gained unprecedented access to Wayne LaPierre and the NRA’s leadership for a story in the early 2000s. The reporter shared an anecdote from one of his meetings with the gun group’s boss. (The NRA did not respond to a request for comment.) George W. Bush had just secured the presidency, and the reporter asked LaPierre: Was he worried that the election of a conservative president would take some wind out of the gun lobby’s sails? With no obvious bogeyman like Bill Clinton to hold up as an everyday threat to Second Amendment rights, wouldn’t it be harder to whip NRA members into donating and campaigning?
According to the reporter, LaPierre deadpanned: “Thank God for the United Nations.”
A decade and a half later, LaPierre is still sitting pretty at the NRA, gun owners still have their constitutional rights, and this old formula for scaring them into shape still works.
[Photo: Flickr, United Nations Photo]