Small arms and light weapons kill somewhere near half-a-million people every year worldwide. They are the weapons of choice in 46 of the world’s 49 ongoing military and political conflicts, killing 300,000 people, and include the assault rifles often toted by teenage soldiers. The remaining toll — 200,000 people — are victims of homicides, accidents or suicides. The United Nations estimates that up to 90 percent of all of the casualties are civilians, and 80 percent are women and children. Small arms are portable, cheap and ubiquitous — today‘s true weapons of mass destruction.
The availability of these weapons stems from fire sales by cash-strapped or unscrupulous governments, and from a lively trade on the black market. Around half the world’s 500 million small arms are illicit, circulating in lucrative illegal weapons traffic. This uncontrolled flow — much of it from the U.S. and Europe to the developing world — is the newest frontier of international arms-control discussions, with the United Nations convening the first global conference on the topic this week. Officially called ”The U.N. Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects,“ the event features a goal which is to introduce a ”program of action“ to finally address this deadly commerce.
The U.N. effort to crack down on the illicit gun trade faces powerful opposition, not least of all from the National Rifle Association and the U.S. government. Because illicit guns in the bush almost always begin as legal weapons in arms-exporting countries, the gun lobby fears that any discussion of international weapons restrictions has implications for domestic gun control. And the U.S. delegation to the conference agrees.
Hyperbolic as ever, the gun lobby has been readying itself to fight against the ”global gun grabbers.“ At the NRA‘s annual membership meeting in May, Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre warned his 4.3 million minions, ”Behind closed doors around the world, private groups funded by billionaires have been meeting for years under the auspices of the United Nations to control ownership of firearms.“ Phyllis Schlafly, editorializing for Eagle Forum, suggests that the purpose of the conference is to ”get governments to confiscate all privately owned guns.“
Other pro-gun groups are mounting an Internet campaign in protest. Gun-enthusiast and conservative discussion groups are filled with apoplectic posts about the conference, accompanied by photos of a U.N. flag used as target practice or jackboots crushing the U.N. Secretariat building. One poster circulating on the Web shows U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan pointing his finger and saying, ”Rich Lazy American Fools! I will take your guns, and then you will kiss the U.N.’s ass!“
All of this seems a little excessive for a conference which, at best, will result in a non-binding agreement with no enforcement mechanism. Still, the gun lobby wants to water down the program of action, objecting in particular to Section II, paragraph 20, which calls on countries to ”seriously consider the prohibition of unrestricted trade and private ownership of small arms and light weapons specifically designed for military purposes.“
This is the part of the document that Tom Mason, the NRA‘s representative at the conference calls the ”kiss of death.“ And this is where the gun lobby shows its true colors. The NRA accepts the other measures, such as export controls and marking and tracing protocols, because these are regulations that the U.S. already practices. But when it comes to selling military-stock weapons to civilians — a call to help violence-plagued countries like South Africa to stop selling AK-47s to children — the NRA has drawn a line in the sand. ”With civilian possession language,“ says Mason, ”you’re ending the discussion.“
In step with the NRA, the U.S. delegation to the conference has also ”red-lined“ paragraph 20. According to a U.N. employee who was present at the preparatory debates, the U.S. cited the right to bear arms in its objection to the paragraph. ”I was surprised by the reference to the Constitution, since the U.S. rarely brings the Second Amendment into international discussions,“ he says. Right on cue came U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton. ”The United States believes that the responsible use of firearms is a legitimate aspect of national life,“ he told the conference in Monday‘s opening remarks. ”The United States will not join consensus on a final document that contains measures contrary to our constitutional right to keep and bear arms.“
U.S. Delegation member Herb Calhoun says they are demanding that Paragraph 20 be cut out because of ”domestic sensitivities, pure and simple,“ but denies any influence from the gun lobby. Nevertheless, participants in the conference’s preparatory committees commonly referred to the U.S.‘s no-compromise objection as the ”NRA Clause.“
Not all guns that find their way into the illicit market come from America, but many do. The United States maintains strong export controls for legal arms, and sophisticated systems for marking and tracing weapons. But easy purchasing laws and the sheer quantity of small arms in the U.S. (currently estimated at around 200 million) provide a steady supply for illegal weapons traffic to countries like Mexico and Colombia. You can still go into Miami gun stores, purchase several hundred assault rifles, fly them to Colombia in commercial cargo and sell them to guerrillas. Colombian officials and ATF agents lament this, but see little hope for reform. ”It is very unlikely,“ says one frustrated Colombian anti-terrorism agent. ”Look at who pays for the political campaigns in the U.S. It is the NRA.“
Our neighbors and many other participants in the conference hope to find a way to reduce this weapons hemorrhage, but instead find the American gun lobby and the U.S. delegation stonewalling that discussion. And as Bush’s relationship with the international community keeps sinking to new nadirs, the conference may be the next battle. This is unfortunate, because it is an important issue that would benefit from U.S. leadership, but the ”firearms community“ thinks it‘s more important to be able to stockpile assault rifles. As one frustrated observer put it, ”The U.S. domestic-driven agenda smacks of indifference to the plight of others — innocent people being killed with American-made weapons.“