In my last post on the Arms Trade Treaty, I explained some of the latest draft’s basic features, including restrictions on the ability of states-parties to import and export a variety of conventional arms. In this post I’ll share a few thoughts on the argument that the proposed treaty would violate the Second Amendment.
In general, I think the Second Amendment argument has some major weaknesses. First, most of the restrictions would simply have no effect on the right to keep and bear arms. Here’s the proposed list of regulated items: battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles and missile launchers, and “small arms and light weapons.” As Heller explained, the Second Amendment’s reference to “arms” applies only “to weapons . . . not specifically designed for military use and . . . not employed in a military capacity.” The result is that all but the last items on the list—“small arms and light weapons”—plainly fall outside of constitutional protection. Moreover, even to the extent that the treaty applies to arms covered by the Second Amendment, significant portions of the treaty would not interfere with the right to “keep and bear” those arms. For example, provisions that would restrict exportation—in a sense the very opposite of “keep[ing]” and “bear[ing]”—from the United States surely raise no constitutional problem. And as a practical matter, it’s hard to see how the prohibitions on transfers in violation of Security Council measures or for the purpose of facilitating genocide, crimes against humanity, or certain categories of war crimes would interfere with the right of U.S. citizens to keep and bear arms.
The only non-frivolous argument against the treaty focuses on its import restrictions. As explained in the prior post, the treaty would require states to “put in place adequate measures that will allow them to regulate, where necessary, imports of conventional arms,” and “adopt appropriate measures to prevent the diversion of imported conventional arms . . . to the illicit market or for unauthorized end use.” The opponents’ argument seems to be that these provisions would require the United States to adopt restrictive measures that would themselves infringe upon the right to bear arms. But several observations undercut that argument. First, it’s actually not clear that the provisions would require the United States to adopt any new restrictions. Federal law currently imposes permit and registration requirements on arms importers, bars some imports based on country of origin, mandates broker registration, and authorizes criminal penalties against violators. There is no textual basis for concluding that these measures are anything short of “adequate” and “appropriate.” As long as that’s the case, no new import restrictions would be necessary in the United States, and the treaty would violate the Second Amendment only if the existing federal restrictions do. Treaty opponents seem unwilling to challenge longstanding federal law in this way.
Second, even if the treaty were to require something more restrictive than current federal law, it’s still not clear that the additional restrictions would be unconstitutional. Post-Heller, lower courts have held that the level of scrutiny applied to a regulation depends on the degree to which the law burdens the right and the nature of the conduct being regulated. Where a regulation does not impose a severe burden or does not implicate the right’s core—i.e., “defense of hearth and home” by “law-abiding, responsible citizens”—courts have applied intermediate scrutiny. In doing so, they have upheld restrictions such as registration requirements and licensing fees. Critics of the ATT would have to establish that the contemplated minimum import restrictions would fail under this framework even while a variety of other regulations have survived. I have not encountered a persuasive argument about why that would be the case, particularly given the important national interests in favor of controlling transnational arms flows.
Finally, even assuming the contemplated import restrictions are constitutionally suspect, the United States could simply join the treaty subject to a reservation ensuring that the restrictions raise no constitutional problem. We did something similar with respect to the Genocide Convention and, more recently, entered a Constitution-based reservation to the Torture Convention. The reservation here would have to comport with the object and purpose of the ATT, but a Second Amendment-based reservation could meet that requirement, as several parts of the treaty draft reflect a purpose of respecting national laws.
The treaty text is far from finalized, so it’s possible that the drafting process will generate Second Amendment problems that are currently absent. But I think the real barrier to U.S. ratification won’t be the Constitution; it will be pro-export political pressure stemming from the fact that U.S. arms manufacturers sell more weapons to foreign governments than the rest of the world combined. The Senate will face tremendous pressure to reject a treaty that may jeopardize some of those sales.