Defense hawks take cautious approach with NRA, UN arms trade treaty

Defense hawks in the Senate are in a holding pattern on a United Nations arms treaty that’s drawing strong opposition from the National Rifle Association over Second Amendment concerns.

Several influential Republican defense hawks said Thursday they have to study the issue further before signing on to oppose it, despite a loud pressure campaign from the NRA.

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NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre on Wednesday told the U.N. conference negotiating the agreement that 58 senators have pledged to oppose the treaty if it covers civilian arms over fears that would infringe on the right to bear arms. LaPierre pointed to letters signed by the senators last year.

But the comments from senators on Thursday signal the fate of the treaty in the Senate might remain more up in the air.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told The Hill that he has to look at the issue very carefully before he takes a position on the treaty, which is still being hashed out at the U.N.

“Obviously I wouldn’t support anything that infringes on Americans’ Second Amendment rights,” McCain said.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a close ally of McCain, is among the 45 Republicans who signed onto a letter from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) last year stating an opposition to a treaty involving civilian arms. Thirteen Democrats signed a similar letter last year from Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.).

In the letter, Moran wrote they would oppose any effort to restrict “the rights of law-abiding U.S. citizens to manufacture, assemble, possess, transfer or purchase firearms, ammunition and related items.”

McCain and Graham, however, are not included among 19 Republican co-sponsors on Moran’s Second Amendment Sovereignty Act of 2012, introduced in May. 

Graham on Friday afternoon announced that he would sign on to Moran's latest letter. 

Treaty supporters, including the Obama administration, say covering civilian arms with the treaty is an important step to keep arms out of the hands of terrorists, and that the Second Amendment concerns have no merit.

They argue that the treaty would bring much of the world in line with U.S. standards without affecting the rules that govern domestic sales, and that removing civilian arms would essentially gut the treaty.

The NRA argues that covering civilian arms in the treaty could violate U.S. citizens’ Second Amendment rights. They say they will oppose any restriction on the rights of U.S. citizens to purchase or possess firearms or ammunition.

Retired Maj. Gen. Roger R. Blunt wrote an op-ed in The Hill on Thursday accusing the gun lobby of distorting what the treaty would and would not do.

He wrote that the treaty’s charter would “prevent it from having any influence over domestic gun laws or sales within countries.”

The NRA has a contentious relationship with the Obama administration. Just last month it urged the House to vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt over a dispute between House Republicans and the Department of Justice over documents related to the Fast and Furious gun-tracking operation. The NRA mentioned Holder’s efforts on gun control in explaining its position on the attorney general.

Others on the Armed Services Committee who frequently align with McCain and Graham have come out against the treaty.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) told The Hill she is opposed over “sovereignty concerns and impact on the Second Amendment rights of United States citizens.”

Sen. James Inhofe (Okla.), the No. 2 Republican on the committee, is also against the arms treaty.

The U.N. treaty is currently being negotiated in New York and is expected to be finalized later this month.

Moran is preparing to release another letter against it next week, according to aides.

The treaty was conceived during the George W. Bush administration, when the United States was one of the few countries that voted against moving forward with it.

But in 2009, the Obama administration switched positions and came out in favor of the treaty.

The Obama administration did not include civilian weapons as one of its issues on a list of red lines published by the State Department, although the administration does vow to oppose “restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution.”

“The Arms Trade Treaty will not in any way handicap the legitimate right of self-defense,” acting Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Rose Gottemoeller said in a tweet last week.

On Tuesday, the State Department's assistant secretary for International Security and Nonproliferation informed the U.N. that the administration would oppose efforts to include ammunition in the scope of the treaty unless it hears regulatory proposals that are both “practical and effective.”

— This story was updated at 2:54 p.m.