July 11, 2001

July 11, 2001 | Commentary on Crime

Gunning for Gun Rights

It sounds like a fairly benign gathering, this United Nations conference -- meeting in New York City until July 20 -- on (ahem) "the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons in all its aspects."

Searching for ways to curb the sale of arms to groups that provoke global instability? Great. Trying to keep the export of illegal guns under control? Fine.

If it stops there -- if the meeting goes no further than figuring out how best to mark guns to trace their ownership, to record what weapons enter and leave countries -- it will be time well spent by the United Nations. But some mischief-makers lie in wait.

A coalition of anti-gun activists wants to expand the agenda to include legal, domestic ownership of weapons. These activists stress that most illegal guns used in conflicts or in crimes begin as legally manufactured, legally sold and legally purchased weapons. But through theft, black market sales and other means, they end up in the wrong hands. So the best way to attack illegal arms, the activists say, is to target legal arms.

Now, the right to keep and bear arms is settled law in America. It's enshrined in the Constitution, and two centuries of court challenges have done little to diminish these rights. But that means little to the anti-gun lobby.

Anti-gun activists contend that America's gun laws, which are less repressive than most countries, contribute greatly to international instability. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and the Coalition for Gun Control in Canada are trying to use the conference to promote tougher gun laws in the United States. Their strategy: Get the United Nations to blame at least part of the illicit gun-running problem on American gun laws.

The United Nations already has paved the way for this attempt. The preparatory committee for this month's conference recommended that the delegates promote, among other things, "the removal of arms from society." And then there's the report of the U.N.'s Group of Government Experts on Small Arms, which says the scope of the conference should "not be limited to criminal breaches of existing arms legislation and export/import controls."

In other words, the United Nations' agenda may not be to overturn the Second Amendment per se, but it has cleared a path for making enforcement of this constitutional protection illegal under international law.

The American delegation shouldn't let this happen. No U.N. bureaucrats have been elected by American citizens, and none should play a role in determining the laws that govern America. Import-export policy is one thing -- it affects other nations. But domestic gun laws are our business, and the United Nations can't be allowed to interfere.

A U.N. conference debating, and possibly voting on, measures proposed by those who seek to disarm American civilians sets a bad precedent. Battles over the gun-ownership rights of Americans must be fought in America's legislatures -- state or federal. Those who have lost these battles in the past can't be allowed to circumvent the process by invoking agreements created by people unaccountable to the American electorate.

Fortunately, the Bush administration is trying to limit the conference to its official purpose. Undersecretary of State John Bolton has warned the delegates that the United States won't support a final agreement that flouts "our constitutional right to keep and bear arms." We're ready and willing to help other countries develop the kind of civil and military export controls we use here in the United States, but we're not about to let U.N. officials dictate our gun laws.

Nonetheless, the United States government is only one voice (albeit a big one) in the United Nations. In recent years, radical NGOs have pushed disarmament issues, such as a ban on land mines, through the United Nations with no respect for American concerns. Anti-gun groups may try to replicate their success by appealing to the sympathies of both socially liberal nations with no tradition of private gun ownership and totalitarian nations where governments, for obvious reasons, restrict weapons ownership by their citizens.

The Bush administration seems to understand the forces arrayed against us and appears ready to overcome them. But Americans should make clear that they won't stand for any U.N.-imposed infringement of one of our basic rights. Because this is one target anti-gun activists will keep shooting at.

Michael Scardavilleis a policy analyst in the Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Michael Scardaville Policy Analyst
The Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy

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