International Gun Control Efforts?
The New York Times has a prominent, page 3 international story datelined from the UN by C.J. Chivers, “US Position Complicates Global Effort to Curb Illicit Arms.” Let me step here directly, but I hope carefully, into the international aspects of a very emotional US political debate. (And thanks to Glenn Reynolds once again for the Instalanche! I also want to thank the commentators for the courteous and civil tone in what is of course a contentious and often emotionally charged debate.)
Readers will no doubt react differently to the tone of the story; for my part, I thought it rather too involved in a particular narrative about the heroic efforts of the UN and global civil society activists to overcome the demonic and ignorant efforts of the NRA, which pulls the strings of the US government, to end the flow of small arms and light weapons into the hands of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. Others, I grant, will read the story differently. It seems to me, though, that the story is far too uncritical when it basically accepts:
The United Nations and advocates of gun control have said that such fears are unfounded, and that there is no effort to impose standards on nations with traditions of civilian ownership, or to restrict hunting. The programs, they said, apply largely to areas suffering from insurgencies or war.
“States remain free to have their own national legislation,” said Daniel Prins, chief of the Conventional Arms Branch of the United Nations Office for Disarmament Affairs. “This document does not try to regulate gun ownership in the whole world. This is an instrument that allows states to focus on regions in conflict and the weapons that illicitly get there.”
This particular meeting, and this particular document, are, at least according to the Times, focused on the areas in which there is agreement. But it is far from crazy to think that this particular meeting does not exist in isolation and is instead part of a long history of meetings and diplomacy, and it is likewise far from crazy to think that this is understood by those supporting gun control domestically as part of the long term process by which one undertakes the ‘long march through the institutions’. Of course that’s the case and, for those that believe in the end result, why should they think any differently? That’s part of what it means to be an activist, thinking long term about how to use rhetoric to reach your substantive ends.
Of course, too, opponents can see the long term implications as well. If one goes back to many of the broader documents that have been produced by the UN itself, it is pretty hard to avoid the conclusion that the intention over the long term is gun control at the domestic level. To refer to “this document,” while leaving aside all the other documents of which “this document” is one in a series is, well, not reportage as I understand it, but artful brief-writing. The article quotes Rebecca Peters, head of one of the leading international advocacy organizations favoring restrictions; but it does not quote perhaps her most famous comment in recent years that “we want to see a drastic reduction in gun ownership across the world.” (I’d like to invite someone who closely tracks this issue as a Second Amendment advocate – say, David Kopel or Glenn Reynolds or Eugene Volokh – to tell us in the comments where they think, if they do, that this article is more artful than informative, and please post to the comments.)
I am reasonably agnostic about guns, and while a very firm supporter of very robust Second Amendment rights in this country, think that other societies are free to approach such issues differently. I was from the beginning in the 1990s, however, a general supporter of the move to create a treaty to limit and regulate small arms and light weapons transfers, particularly into civil wars and conflict zones. I think that US gun ownership supporters are entirely too romantic about what widespread automatic weapons mean in societies where there is either no tradition that teaches about these kinds of weapons, or else in the course of war and disruption, such traditions have eroded.
It is not always the case, contra Heinlein, that an armed society is a polite society. Sometimes it is simply a brutal and brutalizing society, and part of the enormous responsibility of gun owners is to teach and pass along a culture of responsible, individual gun use. That is one reason why, paradoxically for the gun-controllers, a culture of responsible gun use requires that they be reasonably and openly widespread, widely and openly accepted but subject to social norms and cultural traditions of use. Traditions of restraint are ingrained over the long term of a culture and society, however, and in my view quite easily destroyed. The culture of gun ownership in the United States that allows, for example, concealed-carry to work, in my view, quite well is one that peculiarly fuses a libertarian ethos with a social conservatism. Which is one reason that, although I myself have relatively little interest in guns, I was delighted when my then-11 year old daughter wanted to learn to shoot out in the California desert a few years ago.
The movement toward a small arms and light weapons treaty got going in the wake of the landmines ban treaty; it was a natural follow-on for the then-ascendent global civil society movement. But I recall sitting in meetings of landmines advocates talking about where things should go next; I was director of the Human Rights Watch Arms Division, with a mandate to address the transfer of weapons into conflicts where they would be used in the violation of the laws of war, and small arms were the main concern. I was astonished at how quickly the entire question morphed from concern about the flood of weapons into African civil wars into how to use international law to do an end run around supposedly permissive gun ownership regimes in the US. I recall remarking with dismay in all those early meetings, back when it was still closely linked to the landmines ban community, that this treaty had a reasonably good, if still small, chance of accomplishing something worthwhile, provided that it was identified as being about exceptional situations – civil wars and failed states – and was not about domestic laws in countries that were perfectly capable of setting their own terms.
That was good strategic advice, regardless of what one thought of the substantive issue – but it was swept away in the lemming-like tendency of advocacy movements to grow their appetites with the eating. The craziest person in the room all too often winds up controlling the agenda; this is sometimes true of global civil society and advocacy movements as well.
I dropped any personal support for the movement when it became clear, a long time ago, that it is about controlling domestic weapons equally in the US (or, today, even more so) as in Somalia or Congo. Yes, I grant, there is a logic, a coherency, to the idea that one needs a set of universal rules that are more or less the same for every place. It is one of the rationales for world government. I think it is quite wrong, both as a general proposition and as applied to gun rights, but I understand the logic behind it. One can choose between that idea and the one that I urged: that it was both substantively wrong and disastrous strategy to think that the rules for a profoundly broken place, lands of civil wars and failed states, should or could be the same as for a functioning democratic society. The small arms and light weapons movement long ago made its choice about that, and I dropped support for it at that time.
(I am going to publish this now, but I will add a couple of other links and references when I get a little more time tonight. Ps: I have made some grammatical corrections and added some links; I’ll fiddle a little more with it when I get a moment.)