UNITED NATIONS — U.S. officials circled the wagons against international critics at a U.N. conference on small arms, saying they would rebuff any intrusion into American domestic affairs or legal rights to own guns.
A sharp rift between the United States and other delegates emerged on the first day of a two-week conference that seeks ways to control illicit traffic in small arms and light weapons, which the United Nations says are responsible for 1,000 deaths a day around the globe.
The United States voiced a host of objections to the draft proposal, including its inclusion of weapons that civilians can legally own, such as handguns and hunting rifles.
John Bolton, the U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, said Washington rejected any attempt to limit legal commerce in firearms or intrude on domestic matters such as the constitutional right to keep and bear arms.
Instead, "it is the illicit trade in military small arms and light weapons that . . . should properly concern us," he said Monday.
The United States "cannot and will not support" any move to limit gun trade only to governments or adopt a legally binding treaty to curb small arms trafficking, he said.
The lack of a universally accepted definition of small arms and light weapons is an underlying problem at the conference.
A 1997 U.N. study came up with working definitions that have wide support. Simply put, small arms include handguns, rifles and machine guns, while light weapons encompass portable missiles and crew-served weapons such as heavy machine guns and mortars.
Some delegates expressed surprise at the bluntness of the American position.
"It sounded like he wanted the conference to collapse," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes, a Brazilian representative of the International Network on Small Arms, an umbrella group on arms issues.
The United Nations calls the international arms trade a billion-dollar business that has flooded the world with 500 million small arms and light weapons, one for every 12 people on earth.
"Their availability can sustain and exacerbate conflict. Their illicit proliferation erodes the authority of legitimate but weak governments," U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette said in opening the conference, which includes representatives from 189 nations and advocates on all aspects of gun control.
Non-governmental organizations say legally produced arms should be included because they are diverted for unlawful purposes and are used to inflict war and criminal violence on innocent people.
The world's major weapons-producing countries are largely responsible for the illegal arms trade, they say. Human Rights Watch said more than 50 countries manufacture small arms, led by United States, China and Russia.
"These states allow transfers of small arms and munitions that expose many populations around the world to persistent human rights abuse while their police and security aid programs ignore or just pay lip service to human rights standards," said Brian Wood of Amnesty International.
U.S. officials sharply disputed that, saying the United States has the world's toughest laws aimed at preventing legally manufactured guns from drifting into the illicit arms market.
Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., a leading foe of gun control and an observer to the conference, said any attempt by U.N. members to "involve themselves in the domestic affairs of the United States or, indeed, of any nation .... would not be viewed with favor by the Congress."
Loretta Bondi, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-based Fund for Peace, said the United States "is basically going to isolate itself from its allies," as she said it has done on other issues, including land mines and the creation of an international criminal court.
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