Planned shift on gun exports kicks up storm

Planned shift on gun exports kicks up storm
© Hill Photo Illustration/Garrett Evans

The Trump administration’s expected plan to transfer the licensing of gun exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department has Democratic lawmakers and foreign policy advocates readying for a fight.

The proposal under review by the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) has yet to be made public, but experts fear it will lead to less oversight of commercial sales of assault weapons like submachine guns and flame throwers to foreign buyers.

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Less oversight, they warn, could make it easier for deadly weapons to end up in the hands of terrorists and drug cartels.

“It’s a major change,” said Colby Goodman, director of the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy.

“It’s opening up a lot more risk and a lot more opportunity for illegal and illicit trafficking.”

The State Department said it is shifting responsibility to Commerce for approving exports of nonmilitary firearms and ammunition that are already commercially available — those under Categories I, II and III on the U.S. Munitions List. The goal is to reduce regulatory burdens on manufacturers and exporters.   

Under the proposed rules, an administration official told The Hill, firearms and related articles that are uniquely military or that are not otherwise widely available for commercial sale would remain under State Department export licensing controls.

In shifting oversight, exporters and manufacturers, including small gunsmiths, would no longer have to register with the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls and pay the $2,250 annual registration fee.

But experts say if exporters aren’t forced to register with the federal government, there will be no way to track and no one to prosecute when weapons end up in the wrong hands.

“There are plenty of cases when in regular processes weapons have been lost,” said Jeff Abramson, a nonresident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, adding that these are the weapons often used in human rights abuses.

Democrats are particularly upset with one potential change in the proposal.

Shifting oversight from the State Department to the Commerce Department, they say, would eliminate congressional review that’s now required under the Arms Export Control Act for any commercial sales of lethal weapons worth $1 million or more. 

“As you are aware, combat firearms and ammunition are uniquely lethal; they are easily spread and easily modified, and are the primary means of injury, death and destruction in civil and military conflicts throughout the world,” Sens. Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinCommunity development impact remains clear with NMTC post-tax reform Dem sen: ‘Difficult to understand’ Trump’s treatment of allies Dem sen: No military option in North Korea ‘without extreme risks’ MORE (D-Md.), Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinSenate passes 6B defense bill Manchin becomes final Democrat to back bill preventing separation of immigrant families Live coverage: FBI chief, Justice IG testify on critical report MORE (D-Calif.) and Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyLive coverage: FBI chief, Justice IG testify on critical report Student rips DeVos at school safety commission for failure to take on guns DeVos: Safety commission won’t focus on role of guns in school violence MORE (D-Vt.) wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Rex TillersonRex Wayne TillersonNorth Korea looked to set up communications back channel through Kushner: report North America wins 2026 bid to host World Cup after lobbying from Trump Trump, Tillerson pledged to ease travel ban to win World Cup bid MORE in September opposing the planned move.

“As such, they should be subject to more — not less — rigorous export controls and oversight.”

In the House, Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) planned to introduce legislation Wednesday to block President TrumpDonald John Trump20 weeks out from midterms, Dems and GOP brace for surprises Sessions responds to Nazi comparisons: 'They were keeping the Jews from leaving' Kim Jong Un to visit Beijing this week MORE from transferring oversight of “significant military equipment” like automatic firearms and sniper rifles; their parts, accessories and components; flame throwers; and attachments or devices for launching ordnance to the Commerce Department.

In an interview with The Hill, Torres said the Commerce Department has a very different role than the State Department, which leads on foreign affairs.

“[Commerce’s] interest is selling U.S.-made goods,” she said. “They aren’t looking at things from a public safety point of view.”

Torres said the types of weapons being sold could cause a lot of problems in countries where democracy is fragile.

“The State Department has more knowledge about what’s happening on the ground,” she said.

The administration, however, disagrees.

“The Commerce Department is uniquely qualified to handle these rule changes,” the administration official said in an email to The Hill.

“In fact, the Department of Commerce has decades of experience in licensing firearms for export under the Export Administration Regulations. This involves the export, re-export, and transfer (in-country) of 12-gauge shotguns, optical sighting devices for firearms, and crime control equipment.”

The official said each export license would go through a rigorous interagency review process that includes the Defense and State departments to ensure national security and human rights concerns are addressed.

“The proposed changes will allow the Commerce Department to use its expertise and resources through its in-agency law enforcement unit, and its robust end use verification program,” the official said. “This transfer will not create opportunities to put weapons in the hands of bad actors.”

Gun manufacturers and former Obama administration officials say the hysteria over the rule is overblown and premature.

The rule, after all, has been in the works since 2012 and is expected to mimic an Obama-era proposal that was slated for release, but stalled after 20 children and six adults were killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Kevin Wolf, the former assistant secretary of Commerce for export administration, said gun rights and gun control groups should relax until they’ve seen the actual wording of the rule.

“Everybody just chill,” he said. “Anyone who has any concerns should just relax until they see an actual rule to comment on.”

Larry Keane, senior vice president for government and public affairs and general counsel for the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said he’s been told the current rule isn’t significantly or materially different than the Obama-era proposal.

“It is disingenuous for people like Sen. Cardin and other Democrats to now complain about the policy when the rules were over at [the Office of Management and Budget] and within hours of being published” under Obama,  he said. 

A former administration official familiar with the rule discussions said export licenses still would have been required for assault weapons under the Obama-era rule. Licensing requirements would have been eased, however, for the less sensitive gun parts like screws and springs. 

“The assumption is the Commerce Department is less restrictive, but the difference is less sensitive items can be treated less sensitively, but more lethal items can be treated more aggressively,” the former official said.

The push to change the rules is supported by the National Rifle Association, which says many people who never intend to export a firearm or firearm accessories, like gunsmiths and parts manufacturers, are now required to register with the State Department and pay high fees to operate their business.

“The NRA supports the Trump administration’s efforts to complete the reforms and transfer law-abiding firearms and ammunition manufacturers from an export system designed for nuclear submarines and ballistic missiles into one designed around lawful commercial products,” said NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker.

The State Department’s proposed rule was sent to OIRA on Sept. 26 and is marked as pending review. The office has 90 days to review the rule, but that deadline can be extended indefinitely by the head of the rulemaking agency.

The Office of Management and Budget, which oversees OIRA, said it has a longstanding policy of not commenting on rules under review.