Last year, Wayne LaPierre led the charge to kill the world's first Arms Trade Treaty, but this time the NRA may be spread too thin
The National Rifle Association is so tied up fighting new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting that it has failed so far to mount its expected lobbying blitz against a new international arms control control treaty.
With just a few weeks to go until the world's first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is put to a final vote at a UN conference in New York campaigners have voiced surprise at the NRA's relative silence on the issue. Until the Newtown tragedy, in which 20 young children died in their classrooms on 14 December, the UN's attempt to contain the loosely regulated international trade in weapons had been one of the gun lobby's biggest targets.
Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's executive vice president, personally addressed the previous ATT conference last July, telling the meeting that "no foreign influence has jurisdiction over the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us". When the negotiations broke down – in no small measure because of US resistance to the global regulations on weapons sales – the NRA gloated that this was "a big victory for American gun owners, and the NRA is being widely credited for killing the UN ATT".
But ahead of the final ATT conference, which opens on 18 March, the NRA has been notable by its absence. Though the organisation continues to vow that it will do all in its power to prevent the arms trade coming into effect – arguing that it is a "ticking time-bomb" and "the most serious threat to American gun owners in decades" – it has not been applying the same strong-arm tactics as it did in 2012.
Raul Grijalva, a Democratic member of Congress for Arizona and a leading advocate of a global arms trade treaty, said that the NRA seemed "stretched thin after Newtown. They are on the defensive domestically, and their activity level around the ATT has been much less intense."
Grijalva even questioned whether the NRA now had the "political wherewithal at this point to mount the same aggressive campaign as they did last time".
Jeff Abramson, policy adviser to a global coalition pushing for a weapons treaty called Control Arms, also noted that the NRA "has not been as noisy as they have been in the past". But he was not complacent, saying he would not be surprised if the lobbying group kicked back into action before the UN conference opened.
For many years the NRA has been sounding the alarm over what it depicts as an international conspiracy to "grab your guns". The lobby group has used the bogey figure of the UN as a central figure in its scaremongering marketing literature and fundraising drives.
The irony of the tactic is that the ATT would have no impact on the domestic trade and use of guns inside the US. The American Bar Association explored whether the arms treaty would impinge upon the Second Amendment of the US constitution and concluded in a report published last month that "the proposed ATT is consistent with the Second Amendment … the treaty would not require new domestic regulations of firearms."
Michelle Ringuette, Amnesty International USA's campaigns chief, said that the draft treaty clearly stated that US domestic law on guns would not be superseded. "The NRA has been incredibly cynical and in dereliction of its responsibilities to Americans and law-abiding citizens around the globe," she said.
Ringuette accused the NRA of "carrying water for the arms manufacturers and dealers around the world".
Supporters of the ATT point out that the $8.5bn annual trade in conventional weapons is linked to armed conflicts in Africa that cost about $18bn a year in economic and infrastructure damage, as well as claiming the lives of 500,000 people a year in gun violence – about one every minute.
Yet despite this carnage, and despite the evidence that the ATT would have no impact on American gun rights, the NRA was very active last year in opposing the treaty. It put its connections on Capitol Hill to full use, helping to galvanise a group of 51 US senators from both main parties who wrote a letter to Barack Obama setting out their opposition to any treaty that "in any way restricts the rights of law-abiding US citizens to manufacture, assemble, possess, transfer or purchase firearms".
The letter appears to have been successful in causing Obama – who was fighting for re-election – to blink. Though he had given his backing to the ATT in 2009, the US effectively withdrew its support last July, leading to the collapse of the conference.
Following his election victory in November, however, Obama has returned to the theme with renewed vigour. The day after he was sent back to the White House for a second term, Obama renewed his support for an international arms treaty, paving the way for this month's UN conference.
The strengthened determination of the Obama administration, combined with the relative weakness of NRA opposition, gives the arms treaty the best chance of success than at any time since it was first mooted at the UN in 2006.
To pass it will still require a unanimous vote of all UN member nations when it is brought to vote by 28 March. That in turn grants the US an effective veto, and given past form and the NRA's record of resilience in the face of perceived threats, nobody is betting on the final outcome.