Thursday, June 22, 2006

12:24 p.m.

NEW YORK — American gun owners have deluged the United Nations with tens of thousands of letters protesting a forthcoming conference that they fear will infringe on their right to bear arms — and on the July 4th holiday to boot.

Sri Lankan Ambassador Prasad Kariyawasam, who will preside over the two-week Small Arms Review Conference beginning Monday, says the timing is a coincidence. He also insists that the delegates will talk only about the illegal possession, manufacturing and transfer of weapons.

“I myself have received more than 100,000 letters from the U.S. public, saying you’re having this meeting on the Fourth of July, and you will not take our guns away on that date,” Mr. Kariyawasam said yesterday.

“Some members of the U.S. public are totally misinformed,” he added. “This conference is about illegal weapons.”

The United Nations estimates there are more than 600 million legal and illegal small arms and light weapons in circulation worldwide. Of the illegal weapons, most start out as legal arms but are illicitly sold, stolen or smuggled. They are fed by 10 billion to 14 billion rounds of ammunition each year.

Small arms and light weapons — basically, anything that can be fired by an individual or transported on the back of a pickup truck — are a $4 billion a year business, according to U.N. statistics, of which $1 billion might be illicit, according to the International Action Network on Small Arms, or IANSA.

The organization, which is seeking wide-ranging curbs on most aspects of the weapons trade, says 1,000 people a day are killed by guns.

In places like Iraq, where a degree of private gun ownership is common, the looting of military and civilian stockpiles has kept weapons cheap and plentiful. Throughout Africa, where weapons migrate to conflict areas, hundreds of thousands have died, one bullet a time.

After a divisive battle in 2001 to define the scope of their efforts, U.N. member states agreed to fight the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons, a broad and far-reaching mandate.

Governments pledged to collect and destroy illegal weapons and tighten up legislation to squeeze out illicit importing, exporting and sales. So far, 50 nations have destroyed excess weapons, either by burning them in “flames of peace” bonfires or crushing them under massive bulldozers.

The U.S. delegation to the conference will be led by Robert Joseph, who succeeded John Bolton as the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. Most U.N. members are expected to participate in the session, whose purpose is to assess how much progress has been made in the past five years and to plan future steps.

Among the contentious areas to be considered are how to handle nongovernmental traffickers in weapons, whether to attempt a drafting of global guidelines for weapons transfers and how to handle the marking and tracing of weapons and ammunition.

The National Rifle Association, a U.N.-recognized nongovernmental organization, will be among 210 such groups attending the conference, along with pro-gun groups from Canada, Brazil, Britain, Italy, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

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