By Louis Charbonneau
UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - The leading U.S. pro-gun group, the National Rifle Association, has vowed to fight a draft international treaty to regulate the $70 billion global arms trade and dismissed suggestions that a recent U.S. school shooting bolstered the case for such a pact.
The U.N. General Assembly voted on Monday to restart negotiations in mid-March on the first international treaty to regulate conventional arms trade after a drafting conference in July collapsed because the U.S. and other nations wanted more time. Washington supported Monday's U.N. vote.
U.S. President Barack Obama has come under intense pressure to tighten domestic gun control laws after the December 14 shooting massacre of 20 children and six educators at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. His administration has since reiterated its support for a global arms treaty that does not curtail U.S. citizens' rights to own weapons.
Arms control campaigners say one person every minute dies as a result of armed violence and a convention is needed to prevent illicitly traded guns from pouring into conflict zones and fueling wars and atrocities.
In an interview with Reuters, NRA President David Keene said the Newtown massacre has not changed the powerful U.S. gun lobby's position on the treaty. He also made clear that the Obama administration would have a fight on its hands if it brought the treaty to the U.S. Senate for ratification.
"We're as opposed to it today as we were when it first appeared," he said on Thursday. "We do not see anything in terms of the language and the preamble as being any kind of guarantee of the American people's rights under the Second Amendment."
The Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to bear arms. Keene said the pact could require the U.S. government to enact legislation to implement it, which the NRA fears could lead to tighter restrictions on gun ownership.
He added that such a treaty was unlikely to win the two-thirds majority in the U.S. Senate necessary for approval.
"This treaty is as problematic today in terms of ratification in the Senate as it was six months ago or a year ago," Keene said. Earlier this year a majority of senators wrote to Obama urging him to oppose the treaty.
U.N. delegates and gun-control activists say the July treaty negotiations fell apart largely because Obama, fearing attacks from Republican rival Mitt Romney before the November 6 election if his administration was seen as supporting the pact, sought to kick the issue past the U.S. vote.
U.S. officials have denied those allegation.
The NRA claimed credit for the July failure, calling it at the time "a big victory for American gun owners."
NRA IS 'TELLING LIES'
The main reason the arms trade talks are taking place at all is that the United States - the world's biggest arms trader, which accounts for more than 40 percent of global transfers in conventional arms - reversed U.S. policy on the issue after Obama was first elected and decided in 2009 to support a treaty.
Supporters of the treaty accuse the NRA of deceiving the American public about the pact, which they say will have no impact on U.S. domestic gun ownership and would apply only to exports. Last week, Amnesty International launched a campaign to counter what it said were NRA distortions about the treaty.
"The NRA is telling lies about the arms treaty to try to block U.S. government support," Michelle Ringuette of Amnesty International USA said about the campaign. "The NRA's leadership must stop interfering in U.S. foreign policy on behalf of the arms industry."
Jeff Abramson of Control Arms said that as March approaches, "the NRA is going to be challenged in ways it never has before and that can affect the way things go" with the U.S. government.
The draft treaty under discussion specifically excludes arms-related "matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any State."
Among its key provisions is a requirement that governments make compliance with human rights norms a condition for foreign arms sales. It would also have states ban arms transfers when there is reason to believe weapons or ammunition might be diverted to problematic recipients or end up on illicit markets.
Keene said the biggest problem with the treaty is that it regulates civilian arms, not just military weapons.
According to the Small Arms Survey, roughly 650 million of the 875 million weapons in the world are in the hands of civilians. That, arms control advocates say, is why any arms trade treaty must regulate both military and civilian weapons.
Keene said the NRA would actively participate in the fight against the arms trade treaty in the run-up to the March negotiations. "We will be involved," he warned, adding that it was not clear if the NRA would address U.N. delegates directly as the group did in July.
The NRA has successfully lobbied members of Congress to stop major new gun restrictions in the United States since the 1994 assault weapons ban, which expired in 2004. It also gives financial backing to pro-gun candidates.
European and other U.N. delegates who support the arms trade treaty told Reuters on condition of anonymity they hoped Newtown would boost support for the convention in the United States, where gun control is an explosive political issue.
"Newtown has opened the debate within the United States on weapons controls in ways that it has not been opened in the past," Abramson said, adding that "the conversation within the U.S. will give the (Obama) administration more leeway."
Keene rejected the idea of bringing the Newtown tragedy into the discussion of an arms trade treaty.
"I find it interesting that some of the folks that advocate the treaty say it would have no impact whatever within the United States but that it needs to be passed to prevent another occurrence of a school shooting such as took place in Newtown," he said. "Both of those positions can't be correct."
Obama administration officials have tried to explain to U.S. opponents of the arms trade pact that the treaty under discussion would not affect domestic gun sales and ownership.
"Our objectives for the ATT (arms trade treaty) have not changed," a U.S. official told Reuters. "We seek a treaty that fights illicit arms trafficking and proliferation, protects the sovereign right of states to conduct legitimate arms trade, and meets the concerns that we have articulated throughout."
"In particular, we will not accept any treaty that infringes on the constitutional rights of U.S. citizens to bear arms," the official added.
Supporters of the treaty also worry that major arms producers like Russia, China, Iran, India, Pakistan and others could seek to render the treaty toothless by including loopholes and making key provisions voluntary, rather than mandatory.
The United States, like all other U.N. member states, can effectively veto the treaty since the negotiations will be conducted on the basis of consensus. That means the treaty must receive unanimous support in order to be approved in March.
But if it fails in March, U.N. delegations can put it to a vote in the 193-nation General Assembly, where diplomats say it would likely secure the required two-thirds majority.
(Editing by Todd Eastham)