WASHINGTON – A bipartisan group of 51 senators is threatening to oppose a global treaty regulating international weapons trade if it falls short in protecting the constitutional right to bear arms, as the United Nations bumps up against a Friday deadline for action.
In a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the senators expressed serious concerns with the draft treaty that has circulated at the United Nations, saying that it signals an expansion of gun control that would be unacceptable.
"Our country's sovereignty and the constitutional protection of these individual freedoms must not be infringed," they wrote.
A revised draft that circulated late Thursday of the treaty, though, raised hopes from supporters and the British government, which has been the leading proponent, that an historic agreement could be reached by Friday's deadline.
The draft closed several loopholes in the original text, though the Washington-based Arms Control Association said further improvements are still needed to strengthen measures against illicit arms transfers.
A spokesman for Britain's U.N. Mission, speaking anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly, said the new text is "a substantial improvement" and "an historic agreement that effectively regulates the international trade in conventional arms is now very close."
The estimated $60 billion international arms trade is unregulated, though countries including the U.S. have their own rules on exports.
Opponents in the U.S. have portrayed the treaty as a surrender of gun ownership rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. The issue of gun control has re-emerged since last week's shooting at a Colorado cinema killed 12 people
Supporters of a treaty say it will not affect law-abiding individual gun owners, but would close loopholes that allow arms dealers to evade the strict laws that already exist in countries and transfer guns through weaker states.
The U.N. General Assembly voted in December 2006 to work toward a treaty regulating the growing arms trade, with the U.S. casting a "no" vote. In October 2009, the Obama administration reversed the Bush administration's position and supported an assembly resolution to hold four preparatory meetings and a four-week U.N. conference in 2012 to draft an arms trade treaty.
Widney Brown, senior director for law and policy at Amnesty International, said the latest draft closed "some of the significant loopholes that we were concerned about have if not been closed, definitely been narrowed."
It would require all countries to establish national regulations to control the transfer of conventional arms and to regulate arms brokers, and would prohibit states that ratify the treaty from transferring conventional weapons that violate arms embargoes or facilitate acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.
In considering whether to authorize the export of arms, the draft says a country must evaluate whether the weapon would be used to violate international human rights or humanitarian laws or be used by terrorists or organized crime -- and if there is "a substantial risk" the treaty would prohibit the transfer.
The new draft makes clear that doesn't pertain only to arms exports but to all types of arms transfers, closing a loophole raised by campaigners.
The United States objected to any requirement to report on exports of ammunition and that remains out of the latest draft.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, said that the new text would potentially allow states to exclude arms transfers that are not commercial sales, such as gifts, from review under the terms of the treaty and does not include a broad enough list of weapons to be covered.
He said it would also potentially allow states to exempt arms sales under previous defense cooperation agreements under the terms of the treaty. That could undermine another line of attack from opponents in the U.S. - that the treaty would prevent arms sales to allies like Israel and Taiwan.
"We urge the United States and other arms exporters and importers, including China, Russia, the U.K., and India, to work with other states, especially those most affected by violence fueled by illicit arms dealing, to provide the leadership and flexibility needed to reach a sound agreement by Friday's deadline," Kimball said.
With the conference scheduled to end on Friday, negotiators have been trying to come up with a text that satisfies advocates of a strong treaty with tough regulations and countries that appear to have little interest in a treaty including Syria, North Korea, Iran, Egypt and Algeria.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.