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Bill containing cuts which could affect nearly a million households could go to a House vote on Wednesday

Paul Lewis

Last year, Wayne LaPierre led the charge to kill the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty, but this time the NRA may be spread too thin

The National Rifle Association is so tied up fighting new gun restrictions in the wake of the Newtown shooting that it has failed so far to mount its expected lobbying blitz against a new international arms control control treaty.

With just a few weeks to go until the world’s first Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is put to a final vote at a UN conference in New York campaigners have voiced surprise at the NRA’s relative silence on the issue. Until the Newtown tragedy, in which 20 young children died in their classrooms on 14 December, the UN’s attempt to contain the loosely regulated international trade in weapons had been one of the gun lobby’s biggest targets.

Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s executive vice president, personally addressed the previous ATT conference last July, telling the meeting that “no foreign influence has jurisdiction over the freedoms our Founding Fathers guaranteed to us”. When the negotiations broke down – in no small measure because of US resistance to the global regulations on weapons sales – the NRA gloated that this was “a big victory for American gun owners, and the NRA is being widely credited for killing the UN ATT”.

But ahead of the final ATT conference, which opens on 18 March, the NRA has been notable by its absence. Though the organisation continues to vow that it will do all in its power to prevent the arms trade coming into effect – arguing that it is a “ticking time-bomb” and “the most serious threat to American gun owners in decades” – it has not been applying the same strong-arm tactics as it did in 2012.

Raul Grijalva, a Democratic member of Congress for Arizona and a leading advocate of a global arms trade treaty, said that the NRA seemed “stretched thin after Newtown. They are on the defensive domestically, and their activity level around the ATT has been much less intense.”

Grijalva even questioned whether the NRA now had the “political wherewithal at this point to mount the same aggressive campaign as they did last time”.

Jeff Abramson, policy adviser to a global coalition pushing for a weapons treaty called Control Arms, also noted that the NRA “has not been as noisy as they have been in the past”. But he was not complacent, saying he would not be surprised if the lobbying group kicked back into action before the UN conference opened.

For many years the NRA has been sounding the alarm over what it depicts as an international conspiracy to “grab your guns”. The lobby group has used the bogey figure of the UN as a central figure in its scaremongering marketing literature and fundraising drives.

The irony of the tactic is that the ATT would have no impact on the domestic trade and use of guns inside the US. The American Bar Association explored whether the arms treaty would impinge upon the Second Amendment of the US constitution and concluded in a report published last month that “the proposed ATT is consistent with the Second Amendment … the treaty would not require new domestic regulations of firearms.”

Michelle Ringuette, Amnesty International USA’s campaigns chief, said that the draft treaty clearly stated that US domestic law on guns would not be superseded. “The NRA has been incredibly cynical and in dereliction of its responsibilities to Americans and law-abiding citizens around the globe,” she said.

Ringuette accused the NRA of “carrying water for the arms manufacturers and dealers around the world”.

Supporters of the ATT point out that the $8.5bn annual trade in conventional weapons is linked to armed conflicts in Africa that cost about $18bn a year in economic and infrastructure damage, as well as claiming the lives of 500,000 people a year in gun violence – about one every minute.

Yet despite this carnage, and despite the evidence that the ATT would have no impact on American gun rights, the NRA was very active last year in opposing the treaty. It put its connections on Capitol Hill to full use, helping to galvanise a group of 51 US senators from both main parties who wrote a letter to Barack Obama setting out their opposition to any treaty that “in any way restricts the rights of law-abiding US citizens to manufacture, assemble, possess, transfer or purchase firearms”.

The letter appears to have been successful in causing Obama – who was fighting for re-election – to blink. Though he had given his backing to the ATT in 2009, the US effectively withdrew its support last July, leading to the collapse of the conference.

Following his election victory in November, however, Obama has returned to the theme with renewed vigour. The day after he was sent back to the White House for a second term, Obama renewed his support for an international arms treaty, paving the way for this month’s UN conference.

The strengthened determination of the Obama administration, combined with the relative weakness of NRA opposition, gives the arms treaty the best chance of success than at any time since it was first mooted at the UN in 2006.

To pass it will still require a unanimous vote of all UN member nations when it is brought to vote by 28 March. That in turn grants the US an effective veto, and given past form and the NRA’s record of resilience in the face of perceived threats, nobody is betting on the final outcome.

‘It kills me’ to have lost election to Obama, former Massachusetts governor says in first major interview since November defeat

Mitt Romney has admitted that a failure to connect with minority voters and his underestimation of support for Barack Obama’s healthcare reforms helped cost him the presidential election – an assessment that could have important implications for a Republican party divided over how to take back the White House.

Romney said the alienation of Latino and black voters did “real damage to my campaign”.

“We weren’t effective taking our message to primarily to minority voters, to Hispanic Americans, African Americans, other minorities.

“That was a failing. That was a real mistake,” he told Fox News Sunday in his first major interview since his defeat in November.

Romney also conceded that he underestimated support for the president’s healthcare reforms which he campaigned to repeal.

“Obamacare was very attractive, especially to those who did not have health insurance, and they came out in large numbers to vote,” he said.

The acknowledgement will be seized on by sections of the Republican party which believe it has to connect with Latino and younger voters in particular if it is to stand and not lose ground in congressional and state elections, especially in regions with a rapidly rising number of Hispanic voters.

Some Republicans, such as senator Marco Rubio, are urging the party to move away from anti-immigrant legislation and hostile rhetoric that played particularly badly with Hispanic and other minority voters.

But Romney said he would not be the man to be telling his party what to do on that or other issues.

“I lost, and so I’m not going to be telling the Republican party: come listen to me, the guy who lost,” he said.

Romney said “it kills me” to have lost the election to Obama but took personal responsibility for the defeat saying it was “because of my campaign not because of anything anyone else did”.

He conceded that he damaged his own campaign badly with the notorious comment about 47% of voters who will vote for Obama because they “believe that they are victims” who pay no income tax. He said at the time that “my job is not to worry about those people”.

On Sunday, Romney said he had not meant what he said but recognised it had hurt him.

“It is not what I meant. I did not express myself as I wished I would have,” he said. “It was very harmful. What I said is not what I believe. That hurt. There is no question that hurt and did real damage to my campaign.”

However, Romney denied what was characterised by the Obama campaign as his flip-flopping on issues in order to first woo conservative Republican primary voters and then shifting to appeal to the broader electorate in November.

“The idea that somehow the primary made me become more conservative than I was just isn’t accurate,” he said. “On the other hand, a long and blistering primary, where people are attacking one another and where the attack sometimes are not on the mark but are creating an unfavourable impression, those things are not helpful.”

Romney said he was “convinced we would win” right up until election day but knew his bid for the White House was doomed when the exit polls from Florida, which he expected to win handily, showed a tight race.

Obama took Florida with a clear majority, but by then the president had also won Ohio and Romney said he then knew he’d lost for sure.

Romney joked that at least in 2012 he was the Republican candidate after failing to win the party’s nomination four years earlier, but said he will not make a third run.

The Republican former candidate waded into the latest Washington crisis, expressing frustration at what he described as Obama’s failure of leadership over the $85bn in automatic cuts which kicked in on Friday under the sequester after Republicans and Democrats failed to agree a package of spending reductions and tax increases to tackle the US deficit.

“It kills me not to be there, not to be in the White House doing what needs to be done,” he said. “What we’ve seen is the president out campaigning to the American people doing rallies around the country, flying around the country, and berating Republicans and blaming and pointing. That causes the Republicans to retrench and then put up a wall and to fight back. It is a very natural emotion.”

Romney’s wife, Ann, appeared alongside him for the interview. She said she is still frustrated that “people didn’t really get to know Mitt for who he was”, which she blamed on the campaign and the media. She said that she was asked to appear on Dancing with the Stars after the election but turned it down because of her age.

“I’m not really as flexible as I should be,” she said.

Gay rights activists ‘confident and optimistic’ bill will now pass Democratic-controlled house and be signed by governor

Illinois senators voted for legislation on Thursday which would make the state the 10th in the nation and the first in the mid-west to legalise same sex marriage.

Following the 34-21 vote by state senators to approve the measure, it will now go to the state’s house of representatives, where Democrats hold a majority. Illinois governor Pat Quinn has said he will sign the bill if it reaches his desk.

Gay rights activists said they felt “confident and optimistic” the bill would pass.

Senator Heather Steans, a Democrat and the bill’s sponsor, described it as a “vote for the history books”.

“We have the opportunity today to welcome all families in Illinois as equally valued,” she said.

The Valentine’s Day vote marked the first time marriage equality passed on either floor of the state legislature in President Barack Obama’s home state. Both are controlled by Democrats.

Two years ago the state’s lawmakers approved civil unions, a legal recognition of same sex unions short of marriage equality.

Bernard Cherkasov, of Equality Illinois, said he believed the bill would pass in the house because the senate vote was stronger than for the civil unions bill and also because they had 300 members of the religious community pushing for it.

“We expect lawmakers to keep the bill moving” he said.

Successive polls have shown public opinion shift towards support of marriage equality, particularly among younger voters. In November, voters in four states either approved gay marriage or voted against measures to ban it.

Obama, who said for the first time last year that he supports same sex marriage, became the first president to mention the word “gay” in an inaugural address as he compared the drive for marriage equality to the quests for racial and gender equality.

Under the Illinois measure, the official definition of marriage would be changed in state law from an act between a man and a woman to that between two people.

Some Republicans raised concerns that the bill would force religious organisations to allow same sex marriage ceremonies in their halls and churches.

But an amendment, passed on Thursday, explicitly states nothing in the proposed law would force a religious denomination or minster to “solemnize any marriage” according to the Chicago Tribune.

The only Republican to vote in favour of the bill, senator Jason Barickman, worked with Steans on the amendment.

“I think it was the right thing to do,” Barickman said. “It’s a vote that I understand some have varying opinions on, but I feel that I voted in the correct way.”

The senate executive committee approved the marriage equality bill last week, setting up the vote for Thursday.

Every major newspaper in Illinois – including the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the St Louis Post-Dispatch – has endorsed the legislation, according to Freedom to Marry.

The bill has the support of Pat Brady, the Illinois GOP chairman, who said in January that: “giving gay and lesbian couples the freedom to get married honours the best conservative principles. It strengthens families and reinforces a key Republican value – that the law should treat all citizens equally.”

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