The Corner

On Firearms, the U.S. Needs Allies at the U.N.

The topic has shifted at this week’s meeting of the U.N.’s Programme of Action on Small Arms (PoA). The focus on Wednesday was on the provision of foreign aid — undoubtedly a major reason why many nations are in the room. As the discussion unfolds, it’s hard to ignore just how isolated the U.S. is at the U.N. on firearms issues, and, on a related issue, just how little most of the other national delegations know about the subject.

True, we’re not completely alone. India has a flinty realism about high-flown U.N. language that is refreshing, and major donors like Japan occasionally express concerns about open-ended requests for assistance. Our major advantages, though, are simple: We’re the single most important player in the room, and our delegation actually understands the issues. Today, for example, the U.S. intervened repeatedly to discourage the U.N. from seeking to sprint — by, for example, promoting smart-gun technologies — when most of its members can’t even walk.

But it would be good to have a few more friends in the room. That’s where Thomas Saldias comes in. He represents the Latin American Coalition for Legal Firearms, the first association of legal firearms owners in the region, representing twelve nations and 5 million users. While he has a lot of friends, he doesn’t have any money. Unlike the well-funded groups dedicated to defending the Second Amendment in the U.S., his organization is entirely voluntary, and receives no support from outside the region, or from industry in it. As Saldias put it to me today, in Latin America “industry focuses a lot more on government [military] contracts and markets. . . . It’s a huge portion of their business, far more than the civilian market.” So they’ve not been interested in helping.

Governments don’t just cause problems by dominating industry. In Latin America, the prevailing trend is the promotion of civilian disarmament. The dance has five steps: First, require national registration of firearms, and — through a mixture of onerous requirements and sheer incompetence — make that registration process as hard as possible. Second, require any firearm purchaser of a firearm to show “genuine need” — a meaningless requirement. Third, don’t allow civilians to buy “military caliber” firearms — another subjective standard. Fourth, impose as many restrictions as possible on the number of firearms anyone can own, and the purposes for which they can legally be owned. Finally, as in Saldias’s Peru, create an informer scheme that relies on that onerous registration system for a regular supply of victims.

Behind this program stand the anti-gun NGOs. The biggest ones will be familiar to anyone who follows the issue at the U.N.: IANSA (the International Action Network on Small Arms), Oxfam, and the Control Arms Coalition. The U.N. backs civilian disarmament too. As Saldias cuttingly puts it, “They won’t openly say they’re in favor of disarmament; they just go after the illicit trade.” 

Governments play their role by narrowing the legal market down, thereby pushing more of it into illegality — the domain covered by the U.N. The lack of a strong firearms lobby means that governments have no incentive to support legal owners. At the back of it all is the malevolent influence of Venezuela and Cuba, and their ideology that “you need to disarm the people before you implement any more restrictive actions.” Many regional governments find that logic compelling.

Of course, the disarmament schemes haven’t stopped Venezuela’s trouble-making or, for that matter, the widespread diversion of weapons from Peru’s Army. As usual, laws bear most heavily on legal owners, not the traffickers whom Saldias condemns: “We are not the problem. We are part of the solution. We want to keep our property, which was purchased legally.”

The problem, of course, is money. Saldias has a plan for a voluntary levy on imported firearms from the U.S. and Europe, to be paid by importers and collected by exporting firms, which has U.S. precedents. His organization has created the International Freedom Firearms Foundation, currently seeking c(4) status in the U.S., as a venue for U.S. support. And he’s at the U.N. this week to raise the profile of the Latin American Coalition, to address the PoA, and to make it clear that the U.N. can’t take his region for granted.

That’s a healthy development. Americans in industry, in the firearms community, and indeed in the government should bear in mind that, no matter how important the U.S. is, it has only one vote at the U.N. Latin America, by comparison, has over 30. A stronger lobby for legal firearms owners could win the U.S. more support at the U.N., or at least raise the prevailing level of technical expertise closer to that of the United States. If we want to keep on fighting alone against a largely ignorant world, we just have to keep on doing what we’re doing now: letting our friends go it alone.

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

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