Fact Check

U.N. Arms Trade Treaty

A U.N. small arms treaty signed by the U.S. provides a 'legal way around the 2nd Amendment'?

Published May 22, 2010

A U.N. small arms treaty signed by the U.S. provides a "legal way around the 2nd Amendment."

The concept of trying to crack down on the illicit trading of conventional arms through the development of an international agreement setting standards for legal arms trading has been in process in the United Nations (UN) since 2006, when the General Assembly passed a resolution titled "Toward an arms trade treaty" which called upon the UN secretary-general to survey member states on "the feasibility, scope and draft parameters for a comprehensive, legally binding instrument establishing common international standards for the import, export and transfer of conventional arms." The administration of President George W. Bush was opposed to such efforts, stating that they preferred national controls to international agreements, and in several votes on resolutions and procedures related to a UN arms trade treaty from 2006 through 2008 the United States either cast the lone dissenting vote or was one of a very small number of member nations voting in the negative.

The administation of President Barack Obama has been more receptive to UN efforts to craft an international agreement on the small arms trade, however, as reported in the October 2009 Reuters news article cited in the example text reproduced above. That month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement proclaiming that "The United States is committed to actively pursuing a strong and robust treaty that contains the highest possible, legally binding standards for the international transfer of conventional weapons," and the U.S. voted in favor of moving forward with plans for a 2012 UN conference on drafting an arms trade treaty.

In March 2013 a finished version of the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) was finally presented to the U.N. General Assembly, and that body approved the treaty by a vote 154 to 3 (with 23 abstentions) on 2 April 2013. The U.S. was one of the member nations voting in the General Assembly to approve the treaty; only Iran, North Korea, and Syria voted against it. The treaty was finally signed by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in September 2013, but the treaty still requires ratification by fifty U.N. signatories before it goes into effect (so far only seven nations have committed to that step), and it still requires approval by the U.S. Senate before the United States commits to its terms.

The above-referenced piece of scarelore about the United States' having already entered into a such a treaty — one which supposedly provides a "legal way around the 2nd Amendment" and will result in a "complete ban on all weapons for US citizens" — is erroneous in all its particulars:

  • The Arms Trade Treaty has nothing to do with restricting the legal sale or ownership of guns within the United States. The aim of the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty is to combat the illicit international trade of arms by "tightening regulation of, and setting international standards for, the import, export and transfer of conventional weapons" in order to "close gaps in existing regional and national arms export control systems that allow weapons to pass onto the illicit market":

    The Arms Trade Treaty obligates member states to monitor arms exports and ensure that weapons don't cross existing arms embargoes or end up being used for human-rights abuses, including terrorism. Member states, with the assistance of the U.N., will put into place enforceable, standardized arms import and export regulations (much like those that already exist in the U.S.) and be expected to track the destination of exports to ensure they don't end up in the wrong hands. Ideally, that means limiting the inflow of deadly weapons into places like Syria.

    The text of the proposed treaty specifically "reaffirms the sovereign right and responsibility of any State to regulate and control transfers of conventional arms that take place exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional systems," so even if such a treaty came to pass, U.S. rights and laws regarding the sale and ownership of small arms would still apply within the United States.

  • The Obama administration has stated that mandatory conditions for U.S. approval of such an arms trade treaty include the following:

    • The Second Amendment to the Constitution must be upheld.
    • There will be no restrictions on civilian possession or trade of firearms otherwise permitted by law or protected by the U.S. Constitution.
    • There will be no dilution or diminishing of sovereign control over issues involving the private acquisition, ownership, or possession of firearms, which must remain matters of domestic law.
    • As the Wall Street Journal reported, the U.S. 'voted in favor [of the treaty only] after the Obama Administration secured its key "red line" that the treaty would have no impact on the Second Amendment. The final draft specifies "non-intervention in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction" of signatories.'

  • No such treaty could "bypass the normal legislative process in Congress," as all treaties to which the U.S. is a signatory must first be approved by a two-thirds vote of the U.S. Senate before they are considered to be ratified and binding.
  • The President of the United States cannot enact a "complete ban on all weapons for US citizens through the signing of international treaties with foreign nations." The right to keep and bear arms is guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States, and in the 1957 case Reid v. Covert, the U.S. Supreme Court established that the Constitution supersedes international treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate.

As Rachel Stohl, a senior associate with the Managing Across Boundaries initiative at the Stimson Center and co-author of the book The International Arms Trade, noted:

Those opposed to the accord have misrepresented what it does, suggesting that it would somehow infringe on American gun owners’ rights. It would do nothing of the kind.

The treaty applies only to international transfers of conventional arms and, in fact, reaffirms “the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms” within its territory. The treaty's preamble also makes specific reference to the legitimate trade, lawful ownership and use of certain conventional arms for recreational, cultural, historical and sporting activities.

Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized these points in his statement welcoming the treaty's adoption, noting that “nothing in this treaty could ever infringe on the rights of American citizens under our domestic law or the Constitution, including the Second Amendment,” a point on which the United States insisted throughout the negotiations. This treaty has no reach into domestic gun policy, nor would it create a United Nations gun registry. There is absolutely nothing in it that violates the Second Amendment.

In short, there is no "legal way around the 2nd Amendment" other than a further amendment to the Constitution that repeals or alters it, or a Supreme Court decision that radically reinterprets how the 2nd Amendment is to be applied.

Updated   An item circulated in April 2013 claimed to identify "46 senators that voted to give your rights to the U.N." in reference to a Senate vote on the U.S. Arms Trade Treaty:


Over the weekend, we came four votes away from the United States Senate
giving our Constitutional rights over to the United Nations. In a 53-46
vote, the senate narrowly passed a measure that will stop the United
States from entering into the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

The Statement of Purpose from the bill read:

To uphold Second Amendment rights and prevent the United States from
entering into the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty.

The U.N. Small Arms Treaty, which has been championed by the Obama
Administration, would have effectively placed a global ban on the import
and export of small firearms. The ban would have affected all private gun
owners in the U.S., and had language that would have implemented an
international gun registry on all private guns and ammo.

Astonishingly, 46 of our United States Senators were willing to give away
our Constitutional rights to a foreign power.

Here are the 46 senators that voted to give your rights to the U.N.
Notice that ALL are either Democrat or "Independent."

However, the measure voted upon was not the treaty itself, but a non-binding test amendment expressing opposition to the ATT which was tacked onto an unrelated congressional budget resolution. The record of the U.S. Senate Roll Call Vote confirms that all the senators who voted against the amendment were Democrats or independents.


LaFranchi, Howard. "As Arms Trade Treaty Nears Vote at UN, Critics in US See a 'Gun Grab.'"     The Christian Science Monitor. 26 March 2013.

LaFranchi, Howard. "UN Arms Trade Treaty: Will It Receive US Senate Approval?"     The Christian Science Monitor. 11 April 2013.

Mohammed, Arshad. "U.S. Reverses Stance on Treaty to Regulate Arms Trade."     Reuters. 14 October 2009.

Rayman, Noah. "The Real News at the U.N.: U.S. Signs Arms Trade Treaty."     Time. 26 September 2013.

Stohl, Rachel. "Tell the Truth About the Arms Treaty."     The New York Times. 11 April 2013.

Reuters. "After Obama Win, U.S. Backs New U.N. Arms Treaty Talks."     Chicago Tribune. 7 November 2012.

The Wall Street Journal. "Gun Control at the U.N."     5 April 2013 (p. A14).

David Mikkelson founded the site now known as snopes.com back in 1994.

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