At a U.N. Meeting on Guns, the U.S. Stands Up under Fire


At a U.N. Meeting on Guns, the U.S. Stands Up under Fire

Jun 8, 2015 4 min read
Ted R. Bromund, Ph.D.

Senior Research Fellow, Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

Ted Bromund studies Anglo-American relations, U.S. relations with Europe and the EU, and the U.S.’s leadership role in the world.

This week, Turtle Bay is hosting 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 – mercifully abbreviated to MGE2 and PoA, respectively.

The PoA is a strange entity. It’s a political agreement, not a treaty, so it’s never come before the Senate and it has no binding legal force. But that doesn’t make it harmless. It’s one of the many international institutions engaged in creating so-called “norms” that will constrain the U.S., though not the U.N.’s many dictatorships. But despite its painful name and dubious intentions, it’s more amusing than most such institutions.

In theory, the PoA is about promoting cooperation against illicit international arms trafficking, not about what goes on inside nations. If it stuck to its job, it could be modestly useful. But in practice, it’s a forum for promoting gun control. Statements by U.N. member nations regularly assert that the civilian possession of firearms is dangerous and needs to be severely controlled, if not completely eliminated. Speakers regularly imply that the business of the PoA is to focus on the domestic realm, not international trade.

But fortunately, the PoA is hamstrung by the incapacity and malevolence of its members. Over the past two years, fewer than half of U.N. member states have submitted a report on their activities under the PoA. Then there are China, Russia, and other nations that are just not interested in tracing firearms that are involved in war crimes or criminal activities. China even managed to work into the international tracing agreement a loophole that exempts it from putting serial numbers on its firearms.

The result is that the PoA focuses resolutely on peripheral concerns and on blaming the U.S. At the MGE2, the big items on the agenda have been the 3D printing of firearms, modular firearms, and the challenges of marking and tracing polymer (i.e., plastic) firearm frames.

Those are the problems of the 1 percent. If you want to commit a crime, it’s far easier and much cheaper to buy a reliable gun on the street than it is to print one that might not work. The developing world has no problems with 3D printed guns. Modular firearms are firearms with interchangeable parts. “Modular” is merely a sexy name for that old idea — and a way of criticizing the U.S., because of the popularity in the U.S. of the “modular” AR-15 platform.

Polymer frames do pose some genuine technical challenges to marking and tracing, but they’re easy to exaggerate. No firearm marking is completely proof against defacement, and in practice, the efficiency of U.S. tracing hasn’t suffered from the rise of “plastic guns.” Nor are the battlefields of Africa and the Middle East dripping with polymer firearms: In practice, most of their guns come from China, Russia, or the former Eastern Bloc, and are made from good old-fashioned metal and wood.

If the PoA wanted to be serious, and to do its job, it would focus on how so many guns from these nations end up in conflict zones. But that would involve confronting African and Middle Eastern governments and, above all, China, which has an extremely poor record of cooperation on tracing small arms. When U.N.-appointed experts report uncomfortable facts about China’s arms trafficking, China gets them fired.

The result: The PoA sticks resolutely to declaiming the virtues of gun control, to non-problems like 3D printing (China, predictably, wants to require a government license to own a 3D printer), and to high-tech magic bullets like radio-frequency ID tagging (which can be defeated by putting a gun in a microwave for a few seconds, which zaps the ID chip) and the micro-stamping of ammo cartridges (which can be defeated by replacing the firing pin on an AR-15 with a common nail, a process that costs pennies and requires only a few machine tools).

And, of course, it blames the U.S. Earl Griffith, of the Firearms Technology Branch of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, spoke to the meeting on Tuesday on marking and the U.S. eTrace system. As always, the U.S. has stood out at this meeting because it is one of the few nations that knows what it is talking about — most of the so-called experts in the room are nothing of the sort. But inevitably, Griffith came under attack when he stated, accurately, that in the U.S. if you make a firearm for your own personal use, and are not engaged in the firearms business, you don’t need to mark it. There is no evidence that homemade U.S. firearms are contributing to the illicit international arms trade.

It gave me a lot of pleasure to watch Griffith, with the aid of his colleagues in the U.S. delegation, defending U.S. law and policies with determination. As the U.S. speakers pointed out, the PoA is utterly irrelevant to what the U.S. does inside its borders, and it is up to the U.S. court system to decide whether firearms manufacture inside the U.S. has violated U.S. laws. Even better was the reminder from the ATF that “we’re proud of many things here, including our Constitution and the right to lawfully possess and use our weapons.”

When the skeptical meeting chair commented that he was “quite surprised” by U.S. polices, and that “some groups of people” have the temerity to support them, Griffith replied politely but firmly that “the Second Amendment in the United States is sacred. It has been passed down through generations.”

In the U.S. firearms community, the ATF is viewed, in some quarters, with a measure of suspicion. I take no stand on the larger issues, but here at the U.N., the ATF — and the U.S. delegation as a whole — has done its job well, and we should recognize that. I am on record as an opponent of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty, and as stating that the U.S. should no longer participate in the PoA, but if we are to be here, we should do it right. So far this week, we have.

 - Ted R. Bromund is a senior research fellow in the Heritage Foundation’s Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom.

Originally appeared in National Review