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Ad misleads on treaty regulating global arms trade

September 21, 2022 GMT

CLAIM: President Joe Biden just announced that he is adding the U.S. as a signatory to the United Nations “Small Arms Treaty,” which would “establish an international gun control registry” in which other countries can “track the ‘end user’ of every rifle, shotgun, and handgun sold in the world.”

AP’S ASSESSMENT: False. There is no “U.N. Small Arms Treaty.” A separate U.N. agreement, the Arms Trade Treaty, regulates the international trade of a range of weapons. It does not track domestic gun sales. While former President Donald Trump symbolically withdrew from that treaty in 2019, the U.S. technically remains a signatory. The agreement was never ratified by the Senate, and Biden hasn’t taken any further action on it.

THE FACTS: In a Facebook advertisement stoking fears about Second Amendment rights, a gun rights group is sharing erroneous information about a global treaty dealing with the international arms trade.

The group, called the “American Firearms Association,” claims in its Facebook ad that Biden “has just announced that he is adding America as a signatory to the U.N. Small Arms Treaty, setting the stage for a full ratification vote in the U.S. Senate.”

“The U.N. Small Arms Treaty would establish an international gun control registry, allowing Communist China, European socialists, and 3rd World dictators to track the ‘end user’ of every rifle, shotgun, and handgun sold in the world,” continues the post, which links to a petition asking for users’ contact information. The post calls on supporters of the Second Amendment to oppose the treaty “so that America remains free.”

But there is no treaty called the “U.N. Small Arms Treaty,” and the treaty that is being referenced does not record private gun sales in any country, experts say.

The actual treaty is called the U.N. Arms Trade Treaty. It deals not only with small arms such as rifles and pistols, but battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, The Associated Press has reported.

The U.N. in 2013 adopted the treaty to keep weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, warlords, organized crime figures and human rights violators. The treaty prohibits countries that ratify it from exporting conventional weapons if they violate arms embargoes, or if they promote acts of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

The treaty does encourage its parties to maintain national records regarding exports of conventional arms and says such records should include the “end user.”

But that’s a recommendation about recording exports that a country makes to another country, not gun sales to individuals within a country, said Jennifer Erickson, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Boston College.

Experts note that the treaty was written to explicitly make clear it has no bearing on domestic gun rights or sales. The treaty’s preamble, for example, states that the agreement is “Reaffirming the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.”

The U.N. has “no gun control registry in terms of private ownership, whatsoever,” Erickson said. Instead, the U.N. has had a Register of Conventional Arms since the early 1990s, through which countries report exports and imports of weapons with other countries.

Erickson said the U.S. government already uses “end-use” monitoring by recording where it sends weapons.

“There is only in the Arms Trade Treaty a focus on cross-border transfers, so not domestic sales or ownership,” said Rachel Stohl, vice president of research programs at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan think tank focused on international security. “It’s really looking at sales between governments. And it applies to the entire range of conventional weapons, not just small arms and light weapons.”

Such misconceptions about the treaty have circulated for years, said Stohl, who worked as a consultant to the treaty negotiations.

The U.S. signed the treaty in 2013, though the Senate never ratified it — which means the country is a signatory of the agreement, but not an official party and bound by it.

In 2019, Trump announced at a National Rifle Association convention that he was revoking the country’s status as a signatory, though that move was symbolic. The U.N. still lists the U.S. as a signatory to the treaty, though in a footnote online it acknowledges that, in a July 2019 communication, the U.S. said it did not intend to become a party to the treaty and that it has no legal obligations in relation to it.

Contrary to the ad’s claim, Biden has not yet taken any action to reverse the U.S.’s public position on the treaty, such as sending a letter rescinding the 2019 communication, Stohl said.

An inquiry to one of the directors of the American Firearms Association was not immediately returned.

The U.N. General Assembly’s annual meeting is currently underway.

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.