Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building.

Pedestrians walk by the United Nations headquarters building. Credit: AP, 2007

As the American public passionately debates how to curb lethal gun violence here at home, the world’s nations are negotiating a treaty aimed at achieving the same result globally.

If approved, the Arms Trade Treaty which was debated Thursday at the United Nations would establish the first international standards for cross border sales of conventional weapons, a $70 billion a year trade in small arms and ammunition, tanks, attack helicopters, armored vehicles, missiles and missile launchers. It would nudge nations that sign on to bar weapons sales to terrorists, criminals and human rights violators. The goal is to reduce violence against civilians, particularly women and children.

Of course the National Rifle Association is opposed. It insists any such treaty would compromise gun rights inside the United States. It ought not, and it wouldn’t.

Even before negotiations toward a treaty began in 2010, the Obama administration laid down a number of markers. First and foremost, it insisted, that the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution be honored. The U.S. State Department said it would not accept any treaty restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution, and that sovereign control over the private acquisition, ownership or possession of firearms must remain a matter of domestic law.

That’s as it should be, and the administration’s resolve should be backstopped by the U.S. Senate, which would be called upon to ratify any treaty the United Nations approves, either by consensus or by two-thirds of the General Assembly’s 193 member states in a vote that could come as soon as next week.

Despite those assurances, the NRA has vowed to oppose U.S. Senate ratification. No surprise there, but the NRA finds itself in bad company. Syria and Iran, nations among the world’s worst actors, are also opposed to any treaty.

The United States already has extensive export controls in place for arms transfers. But in 2010 only 90 of the world’s governments had any controls at all, according to Oxfam International, a confederation of 17 organizations networked together in more than 90 countries, as part of a global movement for change.

No treaty is going to put an end to the atrocities visited upon civilian populations. But a widely accepted standard of conduct in arms sales should make it more difficult for the worst offenders to get the firepower they crave. 

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