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The World Is Vulnerable -- UN Arms Trade Treaty Talks Fail, Again

The "global gun grab" that isn't.

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Among the array of U.S. civil society and industry groups involved in the ATT process, the National Rifle Association has distinguished itself by issuing a decade-long stream of misinformation that has clouded Americans' understanding of the issues. It is a pattern of willful obfuscation that has defined the gun group's posture as an international actor since before plans for the talks were announced under the Bush Administration. Indeed, the rebirth of the NRA as a profitable organization following its brush with bankruptcy in the mid-90s tracks closely with the history of UN activity around the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons.

In the wake of the Cold War, the role of small arms in fueling conflicts around the world gained a new profile. The booming global trade in light weapons, embodied by the global gunrunner Viktor Bout, was understood as a key cause of numerous simmering humanitarian crises, particularly in Western Africa. When the UN began addressing the issue in the early 1990s through its Disarmament Commission, which convened a Panel of Governmental Experts on Small Arms, the gun lobbies of the world took notice. In 1993, representatives from the NRA joined their peers in mostly English-speaking gun-producing countries for an International Conference on Firearms Legislation. A few years later, the same groups founded the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities, which acquired observer status for a series of regional UN workshops across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The NRA's representative on the UN circuit talks was Oregon attorney Thomas Mason, who has acted in that capacity ever since.

It was around the time of the World Forum's founding in 1996 that the NRA, under the relatively new and failing leadership of Wayne LaPierre, began recruiting members with warnings about "global gun grabbers."

It was cunning strategy. In a period of rising popular anti-UN sentiment on the right, the NRA saw the potential of fundraising off blue-helmet paranoia. In 1996, Tanya Metaksa, then-director of the NRA's lobbying arm, piggybacked off of Senator Jesse Helms' crusade to cut off U.S. funding for the UN to publicize growing UN interest in the global small arms trade, urging him to deny funds to any UN program related to "small arms used by the civilian population in the United States." Metaksa's gambit demonstrated the NRA's willingness and ability to use its position in domestic politics to create problems for the UN. 

When the UN Small Arms panel published its 1997 report, the NRA was ready with a breathless fundraising letter hyping UN designs on the Second Amendment. "We are just two steps away from an international treaty that could cost you and your family your rights and your guns," wrote Metaksa in a direct-mail plea. "A multi-national cadre of gun-ban extremists is lobbying the United Nations, demanding... a virtual worldwide ban on firearms ownership... What would happen if the UN demands gun confiscation on American soil?" At international conferences and at home, the NRA denounced UN efforts to stop weapons from flooding into regions of enormous human suffering and instability such as the Balkans and Western Africa, and even attacked governments like Japan that assisted poor countries in sending delegations to UN disarmament events. By 2006, LaPierre merely had to cull a decade's worth of NRA fax and email alerts for his book,  The Global War on Your Guns: Inside the UN Plan To Destroy the Bill of Rights.

Knowing the NRA would mark the start of the ATT talks with a fusillade of scaremongering -- the NRA robo-calls began soon after Obama announced U.S. participation in 2009 -- the UN went out of its way to explain in the clearest of terms that the ATT did not concern the domestic gun laws of signatory nations. It was a running joke at the ATT talks that the UN's website for the conference seemed designed with the average NRA member in mind, anchored by a  "Myths and Facts" section. The U.S. delegation, led by Thomas Countryman, also sought to head off NRA interference. "This treaty will regulate only the  international trade in arms," Countryman said in his opening remarks. "Any attempt to include provisions in the treaty that would interfere with each state's sovereign control over the domestic possession, use, or movement of arms is clearly outside the scope of our mandate." 

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