Human Rights

Missing Piece of Gun Control Debate: America's Monster Role in International Arms Trade

The NRA’s unfounded fearmongering about constitutional rights are a distraction from human rights.

As the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School has pushed the gun violence and gun control debate back into the political zeitgeist, one issue that has been largely ignored is the debilitating violence caused by the $80 billion global arms trade. According to propaganda by the National Rifle Association, the first United Nations treaty attempting to regulate that violence could threaten Second Amendment rights. The trouble is: the NRA is lying, and it’s distracting the U.S. from regulating one of the most corrupt businesses in the world.

In late December, the U.N. announced that it would once again take up a vote on an international Arms Trade Treaty at a conference from March 18–28. The treaty would regulate the largely uncontrolled world of international weapons exports while still leaving domestic laws untouched. Of course, a major misinformation campaign by the NRA wants Americans to think differently.

Mere days after the U.N. announcement, NRA President David Keane vowed to continue fighting a draft version of the treaty,  "We're as opposed to it today as we were when it first appeared. We do not see anything in terms of the language and the preamble as being any kind of guarantee of the American people's rights under the Second Amendment.”

The current draft version of the ATT clearly and decisively shows this theory wrong. The text explicitly acknowledges upholding domestic and constitutional laws in its preamble, “Reaffirming the sovereign right and responsibility of any State to regulate and control transfers of conventional arms that take place exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional systems.”

If that’s not guarantee enough, the U.S. State Department has further expressed its support for the treaty, declaring:

  • “There will be no restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution.”
  • “There will be no dilution or diminishing of sovereign control over…the private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms, which must remain matters of domestic law.”

Still, despite the NRA’s falsehoods and its continued dismissal time and time again, the myth of lost rights has nonetheless dominated public discourse about the treaty, thereby helping to propagate and canonize this myth. As The Nation previously reported, commodifying right-wing fury is a common tactic. The NRA has regularly used this “fear marketing” approach to hinder domestic gun control legislation in favor of gun manufacturers. Now it's utilizing it to hinder international legislation, manipulating the American public away from the treaty’s true purpose—regulating the seedy underbelly of international arms transfers.

With its illicit and indiscriminate sales to non-state actors and warring factions, the global arms trade has been declared one of the three most corrupt businesses in the world. In countries such as Somalia, Yemen or Syria, weapons and ammunition are regularly sold to known human rights abusers, including Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian autocrat whose use of such weapons has led to at least 60,000 deaths throughout the Syrian civil war. According to the Congressional Research Service, U.S. arms sales, in particular, reached a record high of $66.3 billion in 2011, about half of which came from direct sales to Saudi Arabia.

Those weapons not only destabilize countries, but also filter through entire regions, perpetuating cycles of violence and contributing to poverty, rape, mass murder, the use of child soldiers, and forcible displacement—especially during or following periods of conflict.

To help prevent such violence, the draft treaty of the ATT asks for States Parties, “in accordance with national laws and regulations,” to keep records of international export authorizations and assess whether conventional weapons exports could violate human rights laws and pre-existing conventions. In addition, States Parties would take measures to avoid the arms being used for “unauthorized end use,” “gender-based violence or violence against children,” “transnational organized crime,” “corrupt practices,” or “adversely impacting the development of the importing State.”

These impediments to political, economic and regional development are precisely what the ATT seeks to regulate, not domestic transfers or lawful ownership. While some may find real concerns with the treaty, Second Amendment rights should not be one of them.

As the largest profiteer of the trade—accounting for over three quarters of global sales—the U.S. has a particular responsibility to make sure weapons don’t fall into the wrong hands. If past research by the World Policy Institute is any indication, many of its transfers may have given weapons, ammunition and equipment to human rights abusers, undemocratic regimes, and countries actively involved in armed conflicts. A recent investigation by ProPublica potentially corroborates this theory, showing that the U.S. gave Bahrain at least $51 million worth of military equipment during the regime’s violent crackdown on protestors. Such a move could come across as particularly hypocritical when the U.S. regularly condemns Russia and Iran for sending weapons into Syria, making it essential for the public to engage and open up on the conversation.

Last July, during a U.N. conference on the brink of a potential treaty, breakdowns in communication and objections by the U.S. ended that conversation. The NRA—which takes credit for stalling the discussion—and its untrue allegations about lost sovereignty, may have been to blame. In a statement following the end of July’s conference, the NRA boldly claims to have convinced over 130 conservative representatives and 58 senators to recirculate these lies in letters to President Obama and Secretary Clinton. Of those senators, the majority have received direct campaign contributions from the NRA throughout their political careers.

It takes a particularly dangerous and questionable set of ethics to lie in obstruction of peaceful goals, but using misinformation to block treaties is increasingly common within the world of “fear marketing.” At the end of 2012, false claims of lost sovereignty by misinformed senators blocked U.S ratification of another major UN treaty -- the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It remains to be seen if these tactics will table the ATT again.

After Obama’s re-election, the U.S. backed a U.N. call to renew debate on the arms trade. However, while President Obama and Vice-President Joe Biden have put out a series of executive orders to reduce domestic gun violence and increase gun research, the executive office has been comparatively silent about the violence U.S. weapons cause internationally. Considering its past transgressions and the events of last July, it’s unclear if the U.S. will fall for the NRA’s hoax again. Should it choose to take the ATT seriously, the U.S. could take a major step toward atoning for the indiscriminate arms sales of its past.

This month’s conference could be the last chance for regulating the violence caused by arbitrary or illicit arms sales. If the U.S. truly wants to lessen the threat of gun violence, it’s essential that the U.S. stop adhering to the NRA’s lies and understand its national obligation to address how weapons sales affect millions internationally.

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