IT WAS A shocking statement, harmful to the national interest. But there was the Bush administration's undersecretary of state, John R. Bolton, speaking before a United Nations conference, opposing efforts to rein in the world's illicit arms trade.
His negative statement led other delegates to conclude that Mr. Bolton and the Bush administration were trying to undermine the United Nations Conference on the Illicit Trade in Small Arms and Light Weapons, which meets in New York through July 20.
Mr. Bolton was pandering to the gun lobby that contributed so heavily to the Bush campaign last year. To underline that point, Rep. Bob Barr of Georgia, a board member of the National Rifle Association, sat in the U.S. delegation.
Mr. Bolton talked proudly of the U.S. "cultural tradition" of personal gun ownership. Moinuddin Haider, Pakistan's interior minister, used nearly identical language about Pakistan's "proud cultural legacy" of carrying arms.
These proud traditions are not at risk in anything proposed. Neither is the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, protecting the citizenry's right to bear arms for a well-regulated militia.
What the conference hopes to address is the more than half-billion military small arms and light weapons held in the world today by governments, insurgents, terrorists, criminals and decent folk; their predominance in 46 of 49 major conflicts since 1990; their role in 4 million deaths, more than 3 million to women and children; and the shadowy trade in weapons.
Small arms include grenade launchers, assault rifles, mortars, anti-tank and anti-air missiles and machine guns - not the stuff of personal protection.
South Africa is taking the lead, in a program with Norway, to destroy such weapons found in the wrong hands.
These efforts should be encouraged, not scuttled.
Mr. Haider says that Pakistan became a victim of the light-weapons proliferation and is determined to end this menace to its political stability.
The Bush administration's posture is the most egregious of its isolationist gestures in international affairs, some of which it later clarified into reasonable positions. The U.S. delegation can yet find that its scruples about legitimate possession of personal weapons are not compromised.
The goal should be to restrain the trade in weapons that are most sought by terrorists, child armies and narco-trafficking gangsters. Surely, President Bush cannot object to that.
Copyright © 2001, The Baltimore Sun