The National Rifle Association’s outsize influence on American politics, including its notorious suppression of universal background checks and further research into gun violence, is well known. But it may come as a surprise that the NRA influences U.S. foreign policy as well — specifically, the implementation of international treaties.
Most guns used in armed conflicts aren’t manufactured in the combat zones where they end up. They are made in more developed countries and then shipped elsewhere. This process is possible because of a lack of global cooperation in regulating arms shipments. As Oxfam has pointed out, there are more international laws governing the trade of bananas than governing guns. Governments simply don’t know when guns are being sold, where they’re going or how they’re going to be used.
The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is the United Nations’ bid to assert some semblance of control over the unregulated $85-billion-a-year international arms market. As Reuters described it, the treaty “aims to set standards for all cross-border transfers of conventional weapons, ranging from small firearms to tanks and attack helicopters. It would create binding requirements for states to review cross-border contracts to ensure that weapons will not be used in human rights abuses, terrorism, violations of humanitarian law or organized crime.”
Most observers, including representatives of the 130 nations that have already signed, welcomed the effort to track where weapons are going and how they are used. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry called the ATT a “significant step” in making the world a safer place. Only three countries opposed the treaty: Syria, Iran and North Korea.
Enter the NRA, one of the most powerful pressure groups in Washington, with over 5 million members and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue each year. Even though the ATT would not regulate domestic sales, the NRA vehemently opposes U.S. ratification of the treaty. It charges that that the ATT would create a worldwide gun registry and transfer power from Congress to the U.N. But for all intents and purposes, the U.S. already tracks overseas sales of guns, and the ATT would not automatically create a registry of individual owners. Congressional authority to approve treaties hasn’t been impinged; the treaty, after all, will take effect only if it’s ratified by the Senate.
If the NRA’s complaints seem wild and unfounded, it is because the organization is not a think tank or academic institution. It’s a lobbying group whose strength is its influence in Congress. And power in Congress depends on more than cogent arguments. By its own estimate, the NRA donated $35 million dollars to candidates in last November’s elections. The politicians purchased by the NRA reliably defy popular sentiment and vote against gun regulation.
So in 2011, after the NRA came out against the ATT, 58 members of the Senate sent letters of opposition to President Barack Obama and then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas said, “We will oppose ratification of an Arms Trade Treaty presented to the Senate that in any way restricts the rights of law-abiding U.S. citizens to manufacture, assemble, possess, transfer or purchase firearms, ammunition and related items.” His statement is odd, since the treaty presented to the Senate contained no such provisions.
Besides dragging their feet on ratification, Moran and his cohort have even insisted that the NRA be allowed to voice its complaints during negotiations over the details of the treaty. Rachel Stohl, who was a consultant to the United Nations ATT process, wrote that the meetings were “only open to those organizations that could demonstrate a record of actively promoting the Arms Trade Treaty and supporting its objectives and purpose” — which makes sense, since the treaty is already international law. It would serve no purpose to let an organization that disagrees with the basic premise of the law obstruct its implementation.
Why would an organization whose original purpose was to advocate for gun safety and offer marksmanship classes expend so much effort attacking an international treaty that has no bearing on the Second Amendment? The bloviating makes sense only if you consider what the NRA actually is. It’s not an idealistic nonprofit like the ACLU. It’s not a populist defender of the Second Amendment. It’s not the voice of hunters and sportsmen. Membership dues and program fees constitute less than half the NRA’s budget. The rest comes from the $12-billion-a-year firearm industry. At least 16 firearm manufacturers and sellers contribute, with some even donating a fixed percentage of their sales to the organization.
The NRA speaks for business interests, not ideals. As former Ambassador Dan Simpson wrote for The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, what the NRA “wants is not to preserve Americans’ Second Amendment rights. What it wants is to increase sales of guns.” We already suffer from the NRA’s stranglehold on our domestic gun policy. Now people in conflict zones around the world will suffer because the gun lobby has hijacked an important aspect of our foreign policy.