There's a lot happening at the moment—government shutdown, war in Syria, Iranian president sort of maybe not denying the Holocaust—so there was very little attention given to the fact that yesterday, the United States government signed the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), commonly known as the small-arms treaty. It's meant to prevent the arming of human-rights abusers—potential perpetrators of genocide, and the like—by obligating states not to sell conventional weapons, from small arms up to tanks and helicopters, to foreign governments or entities that are going to use them to commit war crimes and massacre civilians. When it was voted on by the UN, the only countries that voted against it were Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
And today, the National Rifle Association is celebrating. That might strike you as odd, but the ATT is political gold for them. It's the international equivalent of a failed gun control effort in Congress, which is far, far better than no gun control effort at all. It gives them the opportunity to scream, "They're coming for your guns!", raise money, keep their congressional allies asking "How high?" when they say jump, acquire new members, and reinvigorate their existing members. And it all happens without even the tiniest threat to anyone's actual gun rights. Who could ask for anything more?
The last year has been just fantastic for the NRA. You might have thought that the Newtown massacre and all the other mass shootings we had would have been a threat to the organization and its insane views. Au contraire. Yes, there may be more Americans who've now been exposed to what those views are, and who now think less highly of the NRA. But on just about every other measure you could come up with, nothing's better for them than having a bunch of kids get mowed down, or having the United States sign a treaty that touches on the international arms trade.
Why? Because what the NRA needs to keep its internal momentum going is a threat. Not a real threat, mind you, but a threat that sounds just plausible enough to gun owners (when presented with the NRA's particular zealous interpretation) to sound like it might someday impinge on their ability to buy all the killing machines they want, yet in reality poses no threat at all.
Throughout Barack Obama's first term, the NRA was constantly crying, "Obama and Pelosi are coming for your guns!" But after a while, it wasn't all that persuasive. For a gun-grabber, Obama was remarkably passive. In his whole first term, he signed only two laws dealing with guns, both of which expanded gun rights (you're now allowed to take your guns to national parks and on Amtrak trains, so congrats on that). But then Newtown happened, and Obama finally proposed some gun control legislation. It didn't matter that the legislation was almost absurdly modest; what mattered was that the NRA could say, "See! See! We told you he was coming for your guns! Send us more money!" The NRA got its boost in membership and fundraising, and the congressional effort came to nothing. They won on both ends.
And the same thing will happen with the Arms Trade Treaty. Ever since it was proposed, the NRA has been saying that if we signed on, blue-helmeted UN troops would be coming to your door to confiscate your guns. That this is false and ridiculous never mattered. All that mattered was that there is, in fact, a UN treaty, and it says something about small arms. And that's enough. None of their members are going to bother to read it (here it is, if you're so inclined). When they hear what it does and doesn't do, they'll assume that's just liberal lies. And so the treaty gives the NRA another chance to say "They're coming for your guns! Send us money!"
For the sake of accuracy, we should note that just about every single thing the NRA says about the ATT is false. The NRA claims the treaty "covers firearms owned by law-abiding citizens," meaning the UN might try to take your guns. That's false. In reality, the treaty covers only cross-border trade; it explicitly states that it has nothing to do with the domestic policies of any country. What it says is that nations agree not to sell arms to other nations when they know they're going to be used in war crimes. So for instance, if we sold a bunch of rocket launchers to the Syrian government right now, knowing that the launchers would be used to target civilians, we'd be in violation of the treaty. The NRA claims the treaty mandates a "registry of law-abiding firearms owners." That's false. In reality, the treaty requires record-keeping of transnational arms sales, something the United States already does.
Which brings us to perhaps the most important thing to understand about this treaty: the United States already has export controls that do exactly the same thing for our own arms sales. It doesn't impose any new obligations on us. By joining the treaty, we're trying to get other countries to hold to the same standards we do. But because of the opposition of Republicans, the treaty will never pass the Senate.
Speaking of which, those Republican politicians use the nonexistent threat of gun confiscation for the same purposes as the NRA does. A few months back, Rand Paul sent out a fundraising letter saying this: "Will you join me by taking a public stand against the UN "Small Arms Treaty" and sign the Official Firearms Sovereignty Survey right away? Ultimately, UN bureaucrats will stop at nothing to register, ban and CONFISCATE firearms owned by private citizens like YOU." And how can you prevent such a terrible thing? By sending Rand Paul money, of course. For the gun-rights gang, these are the best of times.