Carr's call to arms on gun control
In the rose garden of the United Nations headquarters in New York on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Bob Carr voiced his optimism that in the coming week a UN treaty to regulate the sale of conventional weapons will finally be negotiated.
But inside the sprawling, ramshackle UN building, some believed the Arms Trade Treaty - championed by Australia and 20 years in the making - had already been killed off, another victim of American gun politics and the National Rifle Association.
Senator Carr kicked off this round of UN negotiations over the treaty by telling 150 delegations from around the world that about 500,000 people were killed each year by the estimated 70 million small arms in circulation.
He argues that, surely, if international bodies can regulate and trace bananas around the world, we can regulate the sale of weapons. That death toll can be reduced, Senator Carr says, if the trade can be "reined in".
Under the terms of the treaty, governments would be responsible for establishing compliance agencies and enforcing export standards on their arms manufacturers. The end goal is to track weapons to keep them out of the hands of gangs and war criminals.
Versions of such a treaty have been discussed for more than two decades, and work on this version began in 2006 when Australia was one of seven nations to launch formal talks. Last year, after a month of negotiations, it appeared consensus was close when suddenly the US declared it needed more time to consider its position and the talks stalled. During the interim, other nations, including China, Russia and Egypt, voiced new concerns.
So what changed? No one involved in the talks that Fairfax Media has spoken to is willing to go on the record at such a sensitive time. Off the record, some point to the National Rifle Association, and note that the US pulled out of talks during an election campaign in which President Barack Obama had been careful to avoid any talk of gun control.
In the 1990s, the NRA became the first firearms group to be accredited by the UN as a non-government organisation. And during the last round of talks in 2012 on the treaty, executive vice-president Wayne LaPierre made a statement warning that "any treaty that includes civilian firearms ownership in its scope will be met with the NRA's greatest force of opposition".
Since then the NRA's journal and website have maintained a fiery campaign against the treaty. As recently as Monday, in an edition of the NRA's Cam & Company show on cable television, NRA adviser John Bolton (a former US ambassador to the UN) said that under the treaty "we would find ourselves in the position of adhering to a treaty and changing our domestic gun control laws when rogue states and dictatorships around the world would just go their own way". He added: "We don't need 192 other countries to tell us what our gun control laws ought to be."
The NRA has begun to flex its international muscle, too. It was one of the founding groups of the World Forum on Shooting Activities, an advocacy body that has been joined by the Sporting Shooters Association of Australia.
The NRA's position is a point of frustration to advocates of the treaty, who say it has no impact at all on any domestic weapons sales regulations. The treaty does not cover the internal markets of any nation, and even if it sought to, American law automatically overrides its international treaties. Finally, they say, the terms of the treaty do not contradict the second amendment in any event.
Sceptics believe the NRA is seeking to torpedo the treaty not to defend the second amendment rights of its 4 million members but for the commercial interests of its arms manufacturing allies.
A recent Huffington Post report uncovered the increasingly close ties between the NRA and the munitions industry, whose members it signs on as "corporate partners", and who provide substantial donations.
"The NRA clearly benefits from the gun industry," William Vizzard, a former agent with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, told the Huffington Post. "There's a symbiotic relationship. They have co-aligned goals much more than 30 or 40 years ago."
One of the key sticking points in the negotiations has been over whether the treaty should cover ammunition. Some argue that bullets are too small and easily moved to be effectively tracked.
Others respond that if pharmaceuticals can be tracked, then so too ammunition. Either way, it is clear that American arms manufacturers probably sell more ammunition that ends up in questionable hands than they do weapons.
It is conceivable that in the coming week a treaty excluding ammunition may be proposed. Australia is one of a handful of nations that has declared it believes munitions should be kept within the scope of the treaty; the US now believes munitions should be excluded.
Asked if he believed NRA lobbying could sink the treaty, Senator Carr said: "I don't want to make it more difficult for America by commenting on its internal affairs in this respect." He said he was hopeful a consensus would be found.
Of even greater frustration to some of the advocates of the treaty is that some elements of the conservative side of US politics do not really need a reason to oppose it - beating up on the UN is reason enough in itself.
Even moderate members of the Republican Party were stunned late last year when Republicans in the US Senate failed to ratify a UN treaty on the rights of the disabled that had been modelled specifically on US law. That treaty fell victim to a campaign by Tea Party stalwarts Glenn Beck and Rick Santorum, who argued the treaty undermined American sovereignty. Many on the far right of American politics believe the treaty is even worse - a diabolical plot by "gun grabber" Barack Obama and the UN to disarm the nation.
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