The World in Its Sights

The NRA's messianic quest to make the Second Amendment global.

Whitney Curtis/Getty Images
Whitney Curtis/Getty Images

The National Rifle Association issued only one response to the shootings at an Aurora, Colorado, multiplex. On Friday, the flag at the firearms rights group’s northern Virginia headquarters was lowered to half mast. And that was that — no more on the story until "more information" was available.

It was classy and clipped — a reminder that a domestic gun control debate at this moment would be a huge distraction for the NRA, which has broadened its targets beyond state and federal legislation. Last month, the organization elevated the Fast and Furious scandal when it "scored" Congress’s contempt resolution against Attorney General Eric Holder. (Vote for contempt, or fail your NRA vote-rate report card.) And, this month, the NRA’s lobbying and PR muscles have been squeezing the United Nations Conference on the Arms Trade Treaty, an attempt to establish common standards for the international sale of weapons, including so-called "small arms," like assault rifles.

An international drug war debacle, an international agreement on weaponry — this is your introduction to the "global war on guns." On one side: The NRA, whose executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, identified the war and gave it a name. On the other side: Gun control NGOs and anyone who might favor an Arms Trade Treaty. The battles at home are largely won, so the NRA has turned toward laws outside the United States and global agreements that its home country might want to join. It’s just the latest attempt to try to squeeze any rationality from all discussion of gun control anywhere — even as the nation mourns the killing of 12 and the wounding of dozens more with legally purchased firearms.

It’s hard to miss this seemingly oblivious single-mindedness at the Arms Trade summits. Despite the fact that the proposed treaty contains absolutely no restrictions on domestic gun ownership, the current round, like every preceding round, featured a pavement-rattling speech from LaPierre. On July 11, he appeared before the panel in New York to give a five-minute lecture about tyranny and the red-hot blood running through American veins. "The only way to address NRA’s objections is to simply and completely remove civilian firearms from the scope of the treaty," he said. "That is the only solution.  On that there will be no compromise.  American gun owners will never surrender our Second Amendment freedom. Period."

How do you follow that up? According to an on-the-scene Alexander Zaitchek, LaPierre immediately left the building to go on Fox News. "The conversation breezes right by the NRA," says Scott Stedjan, an adviser at Oxfam who’s lobbying at the summit now. Its stated fear of a national gun registry in America doesn’t have anything to do with the negotiations — the treaty’s about international transfers. "They have three or four lobbyists here on any given day, and they’re working, but it’s on such a narrow issue. The United States already controls the trade of civilian and military weapons, so when it opposes this, the NRA is asking for a standard below the one that already exists."

But that’s how the NRA’s international lobbying works. The lobby rings alarms about new gun laws in any country. It broadcasts the bad news back home. "Gun-grabbers around the globe believe they have it made," wrote LaPierre in his 2006 book The Global War on Your Guns. "Ever since its founding 65 years ago, the United Nations has been hell-bent on bringing the United States to its knees." The NRA’s strategy: Make them kneel first.

Take the example of Brazil, which spent part of the Lula years debating tough new restrictions on civilian gun ownership. In 2003, the legislature passed new laws and set in motion a 2005 referendum that would ban "commerce in firearms and ammunition." Brazilian conservatives begged for help from the NRA. Charles Cunningham, one of the group’s best Washington advocates, was dispatched to Brazil to share his tricks. "Ignorance and emotion are key issues for us to address with logic and common sense," he said at an August 14, 2003, meeting of the Pro Legitima Defensa campaign. "Gun control legislation only affects law-abiding citizens because criminals don’t get permits." 

The ensuing "no" campaign, as detailed in Clifford Bob’s The Global Right Wing and the Clash of World Politics, was heavily influenced by the NRA’s own arguments. One reporter in the country noticed that "no" campaigners appeared to have copy-pasted NRA arguments about gun "rights," which Brazilians didn’t actually have. "No" campaigners got as florid as LaPierre himself, running one ad with a picture of Hitler in mid-salute and the legend: "Whoever is for Disarmament, raise your right hand!" And the "no" campaign won, by a landslide. Brazil had been "a steppingstone for the global gun-ban lobby to inflict its will on law-abiding gun owners in the United States," according to the NRA’s Thomas Mason. And they’d lost.

But hadn’t they lost even bigger in the United States? Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008, but he was no Bill Clinton — let alone a Lula. Firearm and ammo sales spiked. Obama didn’t restore the Assault Weapons Ban. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head. But Obama made no moves whatsoever to restrict firearms.

And yet the NRA still fears a sneak attack. That’s where its foreign policy comes in. Defeating the "global war on guns" means stopping Obama from making a U.N. end-run around American laws. In 2011, new NRA president David Keene — formerly the head of the American Conservative Union — created a new international affairs subcommittee inside the group’s legislative policy committee. The man who’d run it: John Bolton. In office, during the Bush years, Bolton had earned icon status for heading to New York and warning the U.N. not to go after Americans’ guns. Now that he’s officially part of the NRA, Bolton adds ballast to the theory that Obama is slowly teeing up an international assault on the Second Amendment.

"He believes if he could get a second term, that’s that when the floodgates would open," Bolton told the NRA’s in-house news network this year. "Then he has the agenda items like international gun control that he’s pushed very quietly."

What does "pushing very quietly" mean? The United States is participating in small arms talks, but it’s starting with a defense of sovereignty. In his official statement to the conference, the administration’s negotiator, Donald Mahley, warned that "any attempt to include provisions in the treaty that would interfere with each state’s sovereign control over the domestic possession, use, or movement of arms is clearly outside the scope of our mandate." He could have been reading from an NRA pamphlet.

But Bolton hears that and suspects chicanery. The NRA’s stated position from LaPierre’s book on down, is that the various dictatorships that make up the U.N. are trying to run Americans’ lives. Like the Cylons, they have a plan. "Do they really want to wrap it up now," asked Bolton of the Arms Trade Treaty negotiators, "and package their gains and hope they can get it through? Or do they think maybe that’d be better off waiting until November and seeing what happens in our election?"

And that’s the punchline. The NRA’s previous efforts helped put 57 senators on record against any "overly broad" treaty that created "any sort of international gun registry." And Democrats announced that statement of principles — making sure to quote the NRA, which approved of the threat. Thanks to the NRA, America’s own gun politics and treaty opposition are already locked in, regardless of what the Arms Trade Treaty actually says.

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