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U.N. Arms Trade Treaty Fails On U.S. Opposition After False NRA Gun Rights Threat

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US officials cower to the gun lobby.
US officials cower to the gun lobby.

WASHINGTON -- One week after the Aurora, Colo., mass murder brought gun-control back to the forefront of political discourse, the Obama administration found itself faced with its first test on the issue -- and blinked.

An arms control treaty to regulate the $60 billion global business of illicit small arms trading that had worked its way through United Nations negotiating channels for several years came up at the final day of a U.N. global conference in New York on Friday. The U.S. joined Russia in objecting to a final version, with some diplomats and human rights advocates blaming the U.S. for the defeat.

As the Colorado slaughter put guns back on the agenda this week, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas) and 50 fellow senators sent a letter to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Thursday, saying that they would vote against ratifying the treaty if it "restricts the rights of law-abiding American gun owners."

Moran, in a press release, quoted a National Rifle Association leader, who said members would "never surrender our right to keep and bear arms to the United Nations." Treaty opponent John Bolton, ex-President George W. Bush's ambassador to the U.N., wrote that gun-control advocates "hope to use restrictions on international gun sales to control gun sales at home."

Both ignore the legal principle that says no treaty can override the Constitution or U.S. laws. The Associated Press fact-checked claims by the NRA and Bolton on Friday and concluded their assertions were false.

The NRA has been "spreading lies" about the treaty, said Amnesty International spokeswoman Suzanne Trimel in an interview. "Basically, what they're saying is that the arms trade treaty will have some impact on domestic, Second Amendment gun rights. And that is just false, completely false," she said.

Human rights activists have described the treaty as a monumental step toward preventing the illicit flow of weapons to conflict-torn regions. It "creates a global background check to prevent countries and arms exporters from selling guns and military hardware to ... human rights abusers," said Suzanne Nossel, executive director of Amnesty International, in a statement Friday. "It has been in the works for more than a decade -- the Obama administration should not make itself the obstacle just as it reaches the finish line," she added.

The treaty seemed to have a good shot in 2009, when the Obama administration broke from the Bush administration's opposition and showed support.

A version of the pact presented to U.S. negotiators late Thursday appeared to satisfy their concerns, according to Amnesty International.

But early Friday, according to Amnesty, Thomas Countryman, the deputy secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation, told the negotiators that the U.S. needed more time to review the treaty. Russia, Indonesia and India voiced similar concerns.

The U.S. Mission to the U.N. did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Reports late on Friday indicated that the treaty was unlikely to move for at least several months. While Friday was a setback for an agreement, there is still a possibility that a draft treaty could be brought before the U.N. General Assembly and passed with two-thirds majority vote in the 193-nation body.

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