What the Arms Trade Treaty Actually Says

Yesterday the Obama administration announced that it would sign the U.N.'s arms-trade treaty; Republican James Inhofe says that the measure is "dead in the water" when it comes to ratification in the Senate. While the stated purpose of the treaty is to stop gun exports that facilitate serious human-rights violations, many in the American gun lobby say it threatens the right to bear arms here at home. The administration says it merely helps countries create the kinds of trade regulations that the U.S. has had for years.

Here's a quick look at the controversial provisions, most of which -- like much of the treaty -- don't seem to actually require anything specific. You can read the whole treaty here.

1. States are required to create a "national control system" to regulate gun and ammo exports. I'm not sure you could come up with a term more likely to alienate the American gun lobby if you tried.

2. The treaty requires importing countries to provide information to exporters, and "such measures may include end use or end user documentation." State parties are also "encouraged" to maintain "national records" on imports, and to include end-user information in those records. Obviously, this does not square with U.S. gun-rights activists' staunch opposition to a government registry of gun ownership.

3. The treaty instructs nations to "regulate brokering" within their territory. "Such measures may include requiring brokers to register or obtain written authorization before engaging in brokering." The U.S. already requires gun dealers to be licensed, but private sales between individuals are basically unregulated.

4. The treaty instructs exporting countries to take steps to avoid the diversion of guns to the illicit market. This could include examining the gun laws in the importing nation and refusing to authorize exports. (I rather doubt that exporting nations will want to lose a gun market as big as the U.S.'s, for what it's worth.)

Some gun-rights advocates are also worried about the U.N.'s approach to guns more generally, and argue that this treaty is a step toward broader goals. Former member of Congress and NRA board member Bob Barr recently wrote:

[An] important but little-known set of documents that reveal the true purposes of the treaty were crafted by the U.N. Coordinating Action on Small Arms. These include the International Small Arms Control Standard, which is developing "modules" on gun control to serve as "model legislation" for countries that sign on to the treaty. The most relevant of these is the one titled, "National controls over the access of civilians to small arms and light weapons."

This document -- which is still in draft form and, so far as I can tell, available to the public only through a third-party website -- would have nations require licenses and training for gun ownership, cap the number of guns each person may own, limit magazine size to ten rounds, institute a seven-day waiting period, and demand that gun owners commit in writing to storing their guns locked and unloaded. It also suggests that gun owners might be required to allow "periodic inspections" of their property to ensure they are storing their weapons in a government-approved manner. (Seriously. Page 11.)

So ... not good from the perspective of someone who distrusts government and gun regulations. In making the case for the treaty, the Obama administration might want to spell out its understanding of the connection between the treaty itself and these follow-on implementation suggestions from the U.N.

Robert VerBruggen is editor of RealClearPolicy. Twitter: @RAVerBruggen

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