National Security & Defense

The U.N. Confuses Gun Ownership with Arms Trafficking

Freddie Bear Sports in Tinley Park, Ill. (Scott Olson/Getty)

I spent last week at the U.N., watching so-called national experts talk about guns. Turns out most of them weren’t experts. Then again, the ponderousness of the meeting’s title — the Second Meeting of Governmental Experts for the U.N.’s Programme of Action to Prevent, Combat, and Eradicate the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons in All Its Aspects — gave fair warning that the gathering was unlikely to achieve anything of use.

For the U.S., these meetings are mostly about playing defense. We’re still awaiting the final draft of the chairman’s summary of the meeting, but so far, with the possible exception of a few troublesome points, the U.S. delegation looks to have done well.

Rather than dwell on the basic uselessness of the meeting, let’s focus on the nuggets of utility and the warnings about what’s to come. The best part of the week was a presentation in a side event — i.e., outside the formal meeting — led by the think tank UNIDIR, the United Nations Institute for Disarmament Research.

Now, I own up to thinking that the U.N. shouldn’t have a think tank at all. The U.N. doesn’t exist to have bright ideas: It exists to do what it’s told to do by its member nations, and that’s the end of it. But the UNIDIR-led presentation was good, in part, precisely because it was nominally about research, not policy. As a result, UNIDIR could afford to be a bit more blunt than the other participants in the meeting.

The UNIDIR session included research from Conflict Armament Research (CAR), an NGO that works on the ground in conflict zones to trace weapons. CAR’s report concluded that responsibility for arms trafficking in Africa and the Middle East rests in large part with the neighboring states. For anyone who’s followed the subject, that’s no surprise. But try to find a gun-control NGO that admits it.

At the UN, presentations by gun-control groups invariably feature victims from Africa or Latin America. What they never mention is that Kenya, for example, isn’t just a destination for arms trafficking; it’s also, knowingly and by policy, a source of it. The way the gun controllers tell it, the Third World is always a passive sufferer, never an actor. That’s not true: Africa is a very powerful cause of its own misery.

A broader conclusion is that arms trafficking bears almost no similarity to the picture painted by the U.N.’s Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which implies that a major problem is the supposed failure of big arms exporters — including the U.S. — to do a humanitarian assessment before they permit their exports. Almost all of the pro-ATT propaganda focuses on the evils of Western suppliers, and the overwhelming majority of it is aimed at the U.S. The ATT assumes (or perhaps merely hopes) that the arms trade is basically fairly neat and tidy and that all would be well if only people in the First World exercised a bit more care.

For the U.S., the U.N. meetings of so-called experts on guns and arms trafficking are mostly about playing defense.

If only. CAR has found that the velocity of arms trafficking — especially in the region stretching from Iraq to the Sahel, which for practical purposes is one big battlefield — is high, and its routes are complex. CAR has clear evidence of large-scale arms transfers from Libya to Syria, and equally clear evidence that Sudan (no surprises there) is a major arms source (both as a manufacturer and a trans-shipper of Chinese arms) in the region, including into the Central African Republic and South Sudan.

So figuring out where guns come from is tough, and it’s going to get tougher — not because of 3D-printed firearms, or any of the other sexy non-concerns that occupied the U.N. for the week, but because arms traffickers are getting smart about destroying identifying marks, either by deep grinding (in East Africa) or by welding (in Syria), which melts the metal beyond any hope of recovery. I hope it’s not U.S.-government-supplied guns that are getting the welding treatment: There’s no evidence it is.

But if you want to mark and trace your guns, you can. We’re going to continue to hear a lot of demands for technology and financial transfers (i.e., machines and money) to the developing world, supposedly so that they will be able to mark their guns. A lot of this aid will be wasted, because machines need maintenance and skilled operators, which the developing world doesn’t have: If they could work the machines reliably, they wouldn’t need the aid in the first place.

Marking machines, especially the ones that use lasers, are cool. But even in the U.S., most trace requests fail because of human error: If a cop mistakes a pistol for a revolver, the database isn’t going to work. There’s a lot of ill will at the U.N., but the larger reality is that most U.N. members are incapable. So, simple is better: a pen, a pad of paper, a hammer, and marking tools are all you need. Indeed, one of the moments I treasure from last week is listening to a U.S. expert imply, politely, to the Sudanese representative that Sudan is so primitive that it should give up on the machines and just get a hammer.

Unfortunately, that’s not going to stop Sudan from demanding the cool lasers. Aid is going to stay on the U.N. agenda, though, so far, donors have been skeptical: Voluntary assistance through the U.N. was about $4 million last year. More broadly, the existing U.N. programs on illicit trafficking and tracing aren’t terrible, so naturally the U.S. will be pressed to renegotiate them to make them worse.

The U.N. is going to continue to talk about the need to trace ammo, and to push for controls on shipments of arms to non-state actors (a loose term that would include American gun owners). There are also rumors that the U.N. Human Rights Council will assert that gun control is a human right, and that U.N. will lead an effort to standardize end-user certificates — which sounds harmless until you realize that it would likely mean tracking and disclosing the identities of U.S. firearm owners. And, even further away, you can hear muttering from gun-control NGOs about the need for governments to compensate victims of gun violence. Let’s call that what it is: reparations.

What a farce. If the U.N.’s member nations were serious about making a dent in illicit arms trafficking, they could push to end the exemption that allows China, alone among the world’s nations, not to put serial numbers on its guns. They could start a program of digitizing the records from the former Eastern Bloc, to make tracing their surplus stocks easier. They could protect U.N. experts who publish information that China doesn’t like, instead of firing them. They could refuse to give any aid to nations that don’t fulfill the reporting commitments they have voluntarily made under the U.N.’s anti-trafficking programs.

But none of that is going to happen. Instead, the U.N. will keep on busying itself with non-issues such as modular firearms and 3D-printed guns, with magic-bullet solutions to those non-issues, with treaties and commitments that assiduously ignore that most U.N. member nations don’t want to or can’t live up to them, with blaming the U.S., and with pushing gun control. And the gun-control NGOs are going to be right there with them. The gun-trafficking agenda at the U.N. is proof that there’s no subject so serious that it can’t be dumbed down by unserious people.

Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation's Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

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