UN approval of arms trade treaty sets up Obama, Senate showdown

The Obama administration defied a majority of the Senate on Tuesday by voting to approve a United Nations treaty on the trade of small arms and other conventional weapons.

The treaty, overwhelmingly approved by the U.N., requires countries to create internal mechanisms to ensure that their arms exports aren’t likely to be used to harm civilians or violate human rights laws.

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President Obama is expected to sign the treaty within the next few months, but it faces a tough road to win the two-thirds majority support needed in the Senate for approval. 

It is opposed by the National Rifle Association, which argues the accord violates the Second Amendment by regulating small arms, such as rifles and handguns, and calling for the creation of an “end-user registry.”

Fifty-three senators voiced their disapproval late last month by voting in favor of a nonbinding amendment to a Senate budget resolution to stop the U.S. from entering the treaty. 

The NRA is pushing a separate resolution from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) expressing the Senate’s opposition to the treaty.

“The U.N. Arms Trade Treaty that passed in the General Assembly today would require the United States to implement gun-control legislation as required by the treaty, which could supersede the laws our elected officials have already put into place,” said Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who sponsored the budget amendment. 

“It’s time the Obama administration recognizes it is already a non-starter, and Americans will not stand for internationalists limiting and infringing upon their Constitutional rights.”

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott, a Republican, warned Obama not to sign it.

“If you sign it, and if the U.S. Senate ratifies the treaty, Texas will lead the charge to have the treaty overturned in court as a violation of the U.S. Constitution,” Abbott wrote to the president.

Administration officials hailed passage of the treaty, which Secretary of State John Kerry said would strengthen global security while protecting the rights of countries to conduct “legitimate” arms trade. 

White House spokesman Jay Carney said the administration was “pleased” with the passage, but wouldn’t comment on when Obama would sign it. 

“As is the case with all treaties of this nature, we will follow the normal procedures to conduct a through review of the treaty text to determine whether to sign the treaty,” Carney said. “What that timeline is, I cannot predict to you now — we are just beginning the review process, so I wouldn’t want to speculate when it would end.”

The administration says the U.S. already has some of the world’s most stringent arms exports requirements and that the treaty merely requires countries with lax oversight to strengthen their laws in line with U.S. requirements.

“The treaty adopted today will establish a common international standard for the national regulation of the international trade in conventional arms and require all states to develop and implement the kind of systems that the United States already has in place,” Kerry said. “It will help reduce the risk that international transfers of conventional arms will be used to carry out the world’s worst crimes, including terrorism, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”

Treaty advocates say it only applies to arms exports and would have no impact on domestic gun rights. 

“As the United States has required from the outset of these negotiations, nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” Kerry said.

It could make it more difficult for Americans to import certain firearms from other countries that join the treaty, however — though that would be the case regardless of whether it is ratified by the U.S. 

The American Bar Association points out that U.S. arms importers are already required to share final recipient information with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

The treaty stalled last summer after the Obama administration withheld its support ahead of the November elections. Since then, the administration has sought additional language protecting hunting and self-defense rights to help placate gun-rights advocates while pushing hard for the treaty to take effect.

The U.N. panel considering the treaty broke up last week after failing to reach consensus amid objections from North Korea, Syria and Iran. The Obama administration, which had initially insisted on consensus, joined more than 100 countries on Monday in co-sponsoring the treaty and urging its passage in the General Assembly. The treaty passed by a vote of 154-3, with 23 abstentions.

Treaty advocates mocked opposition from the NRA and its allies in Congress, claiming they were joining a rogues’ gallery of countries.

“Iran, Syria and North Korea blocked consensus at the U.N., while the NRA cynically — and ultimately unsuccessfully — tried to erode the U.S. government’s support through a campaign of lies about the treaty,” said Frank Jannuzi, deputy executive director of Amnesty International USA. “But in the end, the global call for responsibility in the arms trade won out.”

He called on Obama to be the “first in line” when the treaty opens for signatures on June 3.


This story was published at 11:51 a.m. and has been updated.