It was a warm evening in June 2006, and delegates to the Small Arms Review Conference crowded the narrow atrium at United Nations headquarters. An official had just dedicated the Five Year Report on the UN's Programme of Action to control the illicit trade in small arms and light weapons (SALW), a policy activists and diplomats had worked years to develop. Celebrating the fight against the global “gun crisis,” the throng of dark suits and knee-high dresses sipped drinks at the open bar and munched shrimp, cheeses, and petits fours.
But just below the surface, things were amiss. The event's organizers had forgotten to check the recorded music track. As the delegates gobbled and gabbed, Bob Marley's “I Shot the Sheriff” blared – its refrain, “but I swear it was in self-defense,” sounding a consistent theme of the Programme's sworn enemies, the National Rifle Association (NRA) and the World Forum on the Future of Sport Shooting Activities (WFSA). For them, gun deaths were not one of the world's most pressing human rights problems. On the contrary: the real threat came from firearms control, undermining the most basic of human rights – preserving life, if necessary at the barrel of a gun. Thanks to the NRA and WFSA, the UN festivities were bittersweet. Despite high hopes, the Programme of Action had become, in the words of one early proponent, Human Rights Watch (HRW), little more than a “program of inaction,” its bland principles nonbinding. Much of the responsibility for this gutting could be laid at the feet of the gun groups, whose representatives sat in their own dark suits on the U.S. delegation.