NEW YORK — The United States will oppose any international effort to limit access of U.S. civilians to legal firearms but supports stronger controls on arms imports and exports, a senior State Department official said yesterday.
“The United States believes it is important for all of us to speak with one voice concerning the grave matter of the international illicit trade in small arms and light weapons,” said Robert Joseph, the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security.
Mr. Joseph is heading the U.S. delegation to the small-arms review conference at the United Nations, which continues through next week.
“The U.S. Constitution guarantees the rights of our citizens to keep and bear arms, and there will be no infringement of those rights,” Mr. Joseph said. “The United States will not agree to any provisions restricting civilian possession, use or legal trade of firearms inconsistent with our laws and practices.”
The international conference has triggered anger among many American gun owners, who have responded to a National Rifle Association campaign suggesting that the United Nations is trying to take their weapons away.
Tens of thousands of letters have poured in to the United Nations from NRA members, prompting reassurances from Secretary-General Kofi Annan and Prasad Kariyawasam, the president of the review conference.
Mr. Joseph stressed that Washington seeks a “positive” engagement with other governments and supports the implementation of a recent agreement to mark weapons and create a registry to trace their whereabouts. The agreement would also:
Establish more effective controls on the importing and exporting of weapons.
Strengthen controls over international brokers.
Provide for more effective stockpile management of weapons under state control.
Provide for the destruction of government-declared surplus and illicit weapons.
In an effort to focus on “substance, not process,” Mr. Joseph said, Washington would not endorse a third review conference, preferring to discuss “actions that are focused, practical and intended to strengthen” illicit arms-control regimes.
Europeans and others are pressing for a formal agreement on transfer controls, to make sure that weapons are not diverted to conflicts or repressive regimes. The United States has refused to discuss a new treaty relating to arms, but Mr. Joseph said yesterday that Washington will consider voluntary principles.
He also warned other delegations to back away from issues that the Bush administration deems too complex or inappropriate for such international conferences, such as the marking of ammunition.