WASHINGTON (AP) — A bipartisan group of 51 senators on Thursday threatened to oppose a global treaty regulating international weapons trade if it falls short in protecting Americans' constitutional right to bear arms.
In a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, the senators expressed serious concerns with the draft treaty that has circulated at the United Nations, saying that it signals an expansion of gun control that would be unacceptable. Gun control is a politically explosive issue in the U.S., where it has re-emerged since last week's shooting a Colorado cinema killed 12 people.
The world's nations are pressing to complete the first legally binding treaty dealing with arms trade and preventing the transfer of weapons to armed groups and terrorists. The 193-member U.N. General Assembly is expected to approve the treaty this month.
The senators said as the negotiations continue, "we strongly encourage your administration not only to uphold our country's constitutional protections of civilian firearms ownership, but to ensure — if necessary, by breaking consensus at the July conference — that the treaty will explicitly recognize the legitimacy of lawful activities associated with firearms, including but not limited to the right of self-defense.
"As members of the United States Senate, we will oppose the ratification of any Arms Trade Treaty that falls short of this standard," they wrote.
The lawmakers insisted that the treaty should explicitly recognize the legitimacy of hunting, sport shooting and other lawful activities.
They also raised concerns that the draft defines international arms transfers as including transport across national territory while requiring the monitor and control of arms in transit.
The National Rifle Association, the powerful U.S. gun lobby, opposes the treaty, saying its members will never surrender the right to bear arms to the United Nations.
The treaty has been in the works since 2006. Abandoning the Bush administration opposition, the Obama administration supported an assembly resolution to hold this year's four-week conference on the treaty.
In April, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, Thomas Countryman, reiterated U.S. support for a treaty.
"We want any treaty to make it more difficult and expensive to conduct illicit, illegal and destabilizing transfers of arms," he said. "But we do not want something that would make legitimate international arms trade more cumbersome than the hurdles United States exporters already face."
The U.N. General Assembly voted in December 2006 to work toward a treaty regulating the growing arms trade, now valued at about $60 billion, with the U.S. casting a "no" vote. In October 2009, the Obama administration reversed the Bush administration's position and supported an assembly resolution to hold four preparatory meetings and a four-week U.N. conference in 2012 to draft an arms trade treaty.
Adoption of a treaty requires consensus among the 193 U.N. member states — a requirement the United States insisted on in 2009 — and diplomats said reaching agreement will be difficult.
With the conference scheduled to end on Friday, negotiators have been trying to come up with a text that satisfies advocates of a strong treaty with tough regulations and countries that appear to have little interest in a treaty including Syria, North Korea, Iran, Egypt and Algeria.
A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly, told The Associated Press earlier this week that the U.S. wants export controls to prevent illicit transfers of arms and has been making clear its "red lines, including that we will not accept any treaty that infringes on Americans' Second Amendment rights." The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms.
Associated Press writer Edith Lederer contributed to this report from the United Nations.