Politics of Poverty

It’s just not true—the Arms Trade Treaty and gun registration (Part I)

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More misinformation from the gun lobby on a national control list

The central argument coming from the gun lobby against the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which opened for signature on June 3, is that the treaty is a back-door way to require every American to register their firearms.

As I have said often on this blog, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and their allies are mischaracterizing the treaty. Because they are once again aggressively putting out false justifications for their argument that the ATT will lead to national gun registration, today and tomorrow I am using this space to set the record straight. Their arguments represent a gross misreading of the treaty and a lack of understanding of existing law on these subjects.

First, John Bolton and John Yoo argued in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that because Article 5 of the treaty “requires nations to ‘establish and maintain a national control system,’ including a ‘national control list’…gun-control advocates will…argue the U.S. must enact measures such as a national gun registry.”

A national control list in this context is a list of items that the federal government has determined require oversight and approval when exported from the United States to another country. The idea behind such a list is simple: Export controls have been established because it is not in the economic, foreign policy or national security interest of the United States to allow certain technologies, including arms, to be freely traded on the global market. This is not a new idea, created by the ATT, rather it is the cornerstone of US export control law, regulation, and practice.

A necessary component of such a system is the determination of which items should be subject to scrutiny and which items can be freely traded. Thus, national control lists are created to inform manufacturers and exporters when an export license is required and to alert law enforcement and custom officials which items must receive extensive oversight. (For Bolton and Yoo’s sake, bear with me through the legalese.)

The U.S. has maintained a national control list for military technology ranging from pistols to fighter jets and warships, including most firearms, for almost forty years called the US Munitions List (USML). (See PL 94–329, June 30, 1976, 22 U.S.C. § 2778.) The USML includes rifles, handguns, shotguns under 18 inches in barrel length, associated ammunition, and certain optical sighting devices. (See also 22 C.F.R. § 121.1.) The Commerce Control List, regulated by the Commerce Department has jurisdiction over the export of shotguns with a barrel length of 18 inches or more and related components, muzzle loading rifles and handguns, air guns, replica firearms, shotgun shells and components, and most optical sighting devices. (See 15 C.F.R. Pt. 774, Supp. 1.)

Learn more at: oxfamamerica.org/armstreaty
Learn more at: oxfamamerica.org/armstreaty

While the United States maintains the US Munitions List and the Commerce Control List, many other countries currently do not have control lists of any kind. They have few, if any, rules as to what items may be exported and under what conditions. Thus, the Arms Trade Treaty requires all countries to maintain and build effective export control systems. Countries have determined that a foundation of any effective system is the establishment and maintenance of a national control list. Article 5 of the Arms Trade Treaty requires that each State Party maintain a list and are encouraged to share the list with other countries in order to create an atmosphere of transparency and predictability in the global arms trade.

It seems disingenuous to me to see John Bolton warn about the dangers of these lists. While Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Bolton was in charge of maintaining the US Munitions List (USML) and the State Department bureaucracy that maintains the US export control system. If the USML could be seen as a means of back-door gun control, he should have warned the world about the dangers when serving in this role, instead of waiting until he joined the board of the NRA.

It is hard to see how the establishment and maintenance of a national control list, which the United States has maintained for close to 40 years, could be used to argue that this will lead to Americans being required to register their firearms by those who know better. It’s just not true.

Part II

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