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Monday, December 03, 2012

The Arms Trade Treaty: A Response to the Second Amendment Critique

Shortly after the election, the Obama Administration announced its support for U.N. efforts to develop a new treaty regulating international trade in conventional arms. The terms are still far from settled, but draft provisions from a U.N. conference last summer provide a rough guide on how the treaty might work. I'd like to highlight some of the key provisions and then address a Second Amendment objection that I’ve heard from some treaty critics. 

The latest draft suggests that the treaty would have several basic features. First, it would establish a limited number of categorically prohibited international transfers. These include transfers in violation of a measure adopted by the U.N. Security Council pursuant to the Council’s peacekeeping authority; transfers in violation of other international obligations; and transfers made for the purpose of facilitating genocide, crimes against humanity, or certain categories of war crimes. Second, the treaty would limit the power of states to export conventional arms by requiring assessments on whether proposed exports would contribute to or undermine peace and security. Mandatory considerations would include whether the arms could be used to commit a serious violation of international humanitarian law, human rights law, or an offense under international treaties relating to terrorism. In the event of an “overriding risk” of one of these consequences, the treaty would prohibit the exporting state from authorizing the transfer. The treaty would also require exporting states to “consider taking feasible measures” to make sure that the arms are not diverted to the illicit market, used to commit gender-based violence, or used by transnational organized crime. Third, the treaty would impose obligations on arms-importing states. These parties would be obligated to provide information to help their exporting counterparts complete the required risk assessments. Importing states would also have to “put in place adequate measures that will allow them to regulate, where necessary, imports of conventional arms,” and “adopt appropriate measures to prevent the diversion of imported conventional arms . . . to the illicit market or for unauthorized end use.” Other provisions impose restrictions on brokering and mandate record-keeping and reporting.

Some U.S. critics of the draft treaty have argued that it would violate the Second Amendment, but I think this objection has some major weaknesses. First, most of the restrictions would simply have no effect on the right to keep and bear arms. Here’s the proposed list of regulated items: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and “small arms and light weapons.” As Heller explained, the Second Amendment’s reference to “arms” applies only “to weapons . . . not specifically designed for military use and . . . not employed in a military capacity.” The result is that all but the last items on the list—“small arms and light weapons”—plainly fall outside of constitutional protection. Moreover, even to the extent that the treaty applies to arms covered by the Second Amendment, significant portions of the treaty would not interfere with the right to “keep and bear” those arms. For example, provisions that would restrict exportation—in a sense the very opposite of “keep[ing]” and “bear[ing]”—from the United States surely raise no constitutional problem. And as a practical matter, it’s hard to see how the prohibitions on transfers in violation of Security Council measures or for the purpose of facilitating genocide, crimes against humanity, or certain categories of war crimes would interfere with the right of U.S. citizens to keep and bear arms.

The only non-frivolous argument against the treaty focuses on its import restrictions. As explained above, the treaty would require states to “put in place adequate measures that will allow them to regulate, where necessary, imports of conventional arms,” and “adopt appropriate measures to prevent the diversion of imported conventional arms . . . to the illicit market or for unauthorized end use.” The opponents’ argument seems to be that these provisions would require the United States to adopt restrictive measures that would themselves infringe upon the right to bear arms. But several observations undercut that argument. First, it’s actually not clear that the provisions would require the United States to adopt any new restrictions. Federal law currently imposes permit and registration requirements on arms importers, bars some imports based on country of origin, mandates broker registration, and authorizes criminal penalties against violators. There is no textual basis for concluding that these measures are anything short of “adequate” and “appropriate.” As long as that’s the case, no new import restrictions would be necessary in the United States, and the treaty would violate the Second Amendment only if the existing federal restrictions do. Treaty opponents seem unwilling to challenge longstanding federal law in this way.

Second, even if the treaty were to require something more restrictive than current federal law, it’s still not clear that the additional restrictions would be unconstitutional. Post-Heller, lower courts have held that the level of scrutiny applied to a regulation depends on the degree to which the law burdens the right and the nature of the conduct being regulated. Where a regulation does not impose a severe burden or does not implicate the right’s core—i.e., “defense of hearth and home” by “law-abiding, responsible citizens”—courts have applied intermediate scrutiny. In doing so, they have upheld restrictions such as registration requirements and licensing fees. Critics of the ATT would have to establish that the contemplated minimum import restrictions would fail under this framework even while a variety of other regulations have survived. I have not encountered a persuasive argument about why that would be the case, particularly given the important national interests in favor of controlling transnational arms flows.

Finally, even assuming the contemplated import restrictions are constitutionally suspect, the United States could simply join the treaty subject to a reservation ensuring that the restrictions raise no constitutional problem. We did something similar with respect to the Genocide Convention and, more recently, entered a Constitution-based reservation to the Torture Convention. The reservation here would have to comport with the object and purpose of the ATT, but a Second Amendment-based reservation could meet that requirement, as several parts of the treaty draft reflect a purpose of respecting national laws.

The treaty text is far from finalized, so it’s possible that the drafting process will generate Second Amendment problems that are currently absent. But I think the real barrier to U.S. ratification won’t be the Constitution; it will be political: Practically speaking, fierce opposition from U.S. arms manufacturers is guaranteed. In 2011, U.S. arms-export agreements with developing nations amounted to $66.3 billion, or an astounding 78.7% of the total global market share. It is hard to believe that the Senate will be able to withstand the likely tidal wave of pro-export lobbying. 

Posted by Ryan Scoville on December 3, 2012 at 05:57 PM in Constitutional thoughts, Current Affairs, International Law | Permalink


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Thanks for the comment, Dan. That's a good point and yet another reason why I think the Second Amendment argument is not all that great.

Posted by: Ryan Scoville | Dec 4, 2012 11:25:23 AM

This seems like a very solid analysis to me. The only thing that I might add is that, particularly under the US Supreme Court's new Medellin standard for determining whether a treaty is self-executing (hint: only if the treaty explicitly says it is - arguably reversing the original constitutional presumption) any final ATT is highly likely to be non-self-executing in US law. From the perspective of the US Second Amendment, this means that, while the USG may conceivably be under international legal obligations to do things that are constitutionally questionable (though I agree with Ryan that this is highly unlikely, and would undoubtedly be the subject of a US reservation), the treaty would not be recognized by federal courts as having direct effect in US law, and thus in order to actually impinge upon individuals' right to keep and bear arms per Heller, Congress would have to implement the treaty through legislation in such a constitutionally questionable way, which is of course pretty much a non-starter. So all of us gun owners can relax about the ATT.

For more commentary on the ATT diplomatic process, see these links:



Posted by: Dan Joyner | Dec 3, 2012 10:29:33 PM

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