The Corner

Concluding Reflections on a Pointless U.N. Gathering on Guns

As I noted Monday on the Corner, the biennial meeting of the U.N.’s Programme of Action on Small Arms and Light Weapons (PoA) that concluded on Friday went about as well from the U.S. perspective as it could have done. But that doesn’t mean it’s harmless: The broader context of the PoA is completely wedded to the promotion of gun control, and to the promotion in the U.S. of supposedly binding transnational norms that would reinterpret and hence change the Constitution.

The reason the U.S. did well at this meeting is because we had — as usual — a well-informed and extremely competent delegation. The problem we face at the U.N. — and elsewhere — isn’t that we’re systemically poorly represented. It’s the political direction under which our diplomats work.

As Charles Cooke has pointed out, President Obama claims to support the Second Amendment and yet simultaneously praises Australia’s gun-confiscation program. His summary of our background-check system is wildly inaccurate. Either he doesn’t care that what he’s saying is wrong, he doesn’t know it, or — most likely — he doesn’t care to know.

And that, in turn, is why it’s not wise to get too happy about our wins on the PoA. I’m the last man in the world — except for the readers of this post — to praise rule by experts, but in this case the problem is that when it’s politically convenient, the experts will get shoved aside and the broader context will control.

And that broader context remains set on promoting gun control. A few data points on that:

‐During the week, the U.N. Office of Disarmament (ODA) launched a publication on “How to Establish and Maintain Gun-Free Zones,” which notes that their purpose is to “help change social norms and attitudes towards guns,” and that such zones must be established “in conjunction with other arms control . . . measures.” During the launch event, one U.N. official argued for “community enforcement” of gun bans. Another explained that, in nations with constitutional protections on firearms ownership, a way to get round them and put community enforcement in place was to use anti-trespassing laws.

‐The Small Arms Survey published an updated version of “A Diplomat’s Guide to the UN Small Arms Process,” which runs the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty (and much else) together into the PoA in a way that will inevitably contaminate all of them with the PoA’s norms. In theory, the ATT has nothing to do with arms control – but in practice, the Survey describes the ATT as “a step forward in arms control?” The question mark is entirely superfluous.

‐IANSA, the International Small Arms Action Network, described the PoA in its official presentation as “a minimum baseline to build on,” and asserted that the PoA required changing “national gun laws and justice system reform.”

‐The U.N. works closely with all of the anti-firearms NGOs, and the conduct of the meeting during which the NGOs made their statements was wildly biased, with applause from national delegations to NGO calls for gun control and even a suspension of the session by the chair.

‐By contrast, in spite of the fact that the 2014 PoA supposedly commits member states to support “engagement with industry,” the U.N. shows no interest in considering whether concerns like 3D printing of firearms are real, or measures such as the micro-stamping of firing pins are worthwhile. As one weary industry representative put it to me, “After we speak, they’ll ignore us, and then they’ll put out a press release saying they’ve engaged in full and inclusive consultation.”

All of this shows the tremendous imbalance inherent in the U.N. Many of the U.N.’s activities in this realm are undertaken with the financial support of a very few nations, almost all of them in Europe. And while they can and do fund, we cannot stop them. Or, more accurately, while we could (and should) withhold U.S. funds from the U.N. up to the value of the U.S. contribution to the PoA, that would not stop the U.N. from working hand in glove with IANSA, or Sweden, from funding the development of gun-free zones. As long as the U.N. can rely on voluntary contributions to support the activities that it prefers, and absent a broader review of its activities and budget, it will continue those activities.

The supposed emphasis of the PoA on the illicit trade in firearms is meaningless. It is governments that define what is illegal, and the whole purpose of the PoA is to convince them to make more things illegal. The PoA is therefore a self-feeding beast. But insofar as it’s genuinely concerned with stopping the illicit trade in firearms, the PoA cannot work. That’s not an ideological statement. It just can’t work. The purpose of last week’s meeting was, explicitly, to “consider implementation” of the PoA.

But if you wanted to do that honestly, you’d have to say that some — in fact, almost all — member states are not living up to their commitments under it. That would entail criticizing member states, and unless the nation being criticized is the U.S. or Israel, that rarely happens at the U.N. It certainly does not happen in the kind of systematic way that would be necessary to assess PoA implementation.

So the whole thing is a farce. It must be a farce. It’s like telling a class that you’ll assess them at the end of the semester, and then telling them that they’ll all get As even if they don’t turn in any work at all. The U.N. alternative to assessing implementation is to chase shiny objects like the 3D printing of firearms, which is laughably distant from being a serious concern. Unfortunately, at the U.N., the fact that something is laughable is irrelevant to its prospects for causing mischief.

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

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