President Obama will sign a controversial United Nations arms control treaty that might lead to restrictions on gun sales in the United States. At least that’s what Secretary of State John Kerry announced on June 2, 2013.
It isn’t clear how the Arms Trade Treaty, which was approved by the UN General Assembly on April 3, 2013, would affect gun owners or the sale of weapons or ammunition in the United States. The purpose of the treaty is to require that weapons and ammunition that are shipped across borders comply with “international standards.”
Standards Are Not Determined
The problem is that the standards have not been determined. That means it isn’t known what weapons would be affected by the treaty or how it would be implemented or enforced. It also means Secretary Kerry is right when he says the treaty won’t affect the Second Amendment rights of individual Americans to own arms.
The standards applied are likely to be stringent because the treaty is strongly supported by nations with a long history of strict gun control laws. That includes the United Kingdom, Australia, and Mexico, which have been highly critical of the gun trade in the United States.
Nor has the method of enforcement for the standards been determined. Would they be enforced by customs inspectors at the border or inside countries? Would a gun shop in Texas that might be patronized by Mexican citizens have to comply with the standards? These questions haven’t been answered.
Even supporters admit that the treaty is vague and open to interpretation. On the surface, it simply bans the sale of weapons to war criminals and to countries that violate human rights. Among other things, it would require arms dealers to state where weapons are being shipped.
However, gun rights advocates have been critical of the treaty because it covers small arms and light weapons, which would include rifles and pistols. Another provision bans the export of conventional weapons if they could be used to attack civilians—and since any weapon could conceivably be used to attack civilians, that could bar the export of any weapon.
How Could It Affect Average Americans?
So could the treaty affect average Americans that own guns? The answer is we don’t know because it is so vague. Some critics claim the law would force the US to create a national registry of gun owners and dealers. That obviously wouldn’t be popular, and it would be difficult to set up and enforce since Congress would have to approve such a registry and finance it.
The treaty would presumably affect the ability of Americans to buy foreign manufactured guns or ammunition because it could restrict the sales of those items, particularly if it were applied to military-style weapons, which could include automatic rifles and pistols. The treaty might make it difficult to sell weapons to foreign nationals or to purchase weapons from outside the country.
An interesting prospect would be that the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms would enforce the treaty in the US. One has to wonder if the Bureau would have the authority to inspect or audit gun-related businesses for compliance with the treaty: for example, to come into gun shops or gun shows and ask dealers if they are shipping weapons to Africa.
The relationship of the treaty to the Second Amendment is vague and would have to be determined by the courts. The Supreme Court’s track record on gun control issues is mixed. In 2008 it ruled that the Second Amendment protected individuals, but it didn’t rule on how the Amendment affects businesses. This decision seems to be the basis of Kerry’s assertion that the treaty wouldn’t affect Americans’ ability to own guns.
We also don’t know how newer liberal justices that President Obama has appointed to the court would rule. A strong possibility is that the court would rule that Congress has the ability to regulate the arms business just like any other business and leave it at that. In other words, it would pass the buck back to Congress much like it did in the Obamacare ruling.
Won’t Be Ratified by Senate Anytime Soon
Gun owners shouldn’t lose any sleep over the Treaty because it won’t pass the U.S. Senate any time soon. A two thirds majority is required to pass the treaty, and that isn’t going to happen. In fact, 53 Senators supported a measure that urged Obama not to sign the treaty.
At the end of the day Obama’s support is a symbolic action designed to please peace groups, gun control advocates, and other left-wing supporters. Obama signed the treaty knowing good and well that it will not pass. He will look like a hero to Europeans and gun control advocates for championing the enlightened measure when the Senate votes it down.
This will also enhance Obama’s popularity in Europe and his appeal on the lecture circuit after he leaves office in 2017. He’ll be able to charge a lot of money for speeches about ignorant Americans in foreign countries. It could be that the whole thing is highly symbolic and largely meaningless.
What about Imported Guns?
The only real changes Americans might see because of the treaty is difficulty buying some foreign-made guns and ammunition. That could occur anyway because some of those weapons are made in foreign countries like Germany that have signed the treaty.
The largest maker of foreign-made weapons sold in the US, China, has not signed the treaty; nor has Russia, which also makes a lot of weapons. China and Russia abstained from voting on the treaty in the UN, largely because they fear it would harm their profitable arms export businesses. It is doubtful either of those nations will sign anytime soon.
The main effect might be to make it harder to buy some European manufactured weapons and ammunition in the US. Gun buyers will have to purchase American- or Chinese-made weapons.
Long-Term Danger to Second Amendment Rights
The only real danger to Second Amendment rights from the treaty will be long term. Even though the Senate won’t ratify it, the Arms Trade Treaty will not go away anytime soon. 154 members of the UN, including the United States, voted for it. It was backed by some major powers, including Britain, and by politically influential left-wing organizations that included Amnesty International.
That means there will be strong pressure on the US to ratify and enforce the treaty. Even though the Senate might not ratify it now, gun control backers can keep bringing it back.
Sometime in the future they might be able to sneak it through the Senate if nobody is watching and they can find enough votes. That might happen if the Democrats pick up just a few more Senate seats in 2014 or 2016.
The international community led by Europe has embarked upon a concerted effort to force strict gun control on all nations in the name of human rights. These efforts are well organized and well financed. That means we should expect constant pressure and efforts to force some sort of international gun control regime on the US for the foreseeable future.
Even though the treaty isn’t law in the U.S., it is clearly the shape of things to come. A United Nations gun control effort is here, and it will continue whether we want it or not.