Trump’s arms export rules will undermine US security and risk human rights abuses

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This was the last week for public comments on the Trump administration’s plan to reduce restrictions on the export of firearms from the United States. There was much to criticize. A number of arms control, human rights, and firearms safety groups have submitted detailed critiques of the proposed firearms export rule.

As Reps. Sander Levin (D-Mich.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), James McGovern (D-Mass.), Norma Torres (D-Calif.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.) noted in a recent letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross it would be a mistake to move regulation of dangerous firearms from the State Department to the less restrictive Department of Commerce. The lawmakers warned the Trump plan as proposed would make it more likely that weapons of U.S. origin “will end up in the hands of traffickers, terrorists, and cartels.” The new rule may be good news for the firearms industry, but it is bad news for anyone who is concerned about human rights and global security. 

{mosads}One major flaw in the new plan is that it would eliminate notifications to Congress of exports of firearms and related equipment worth $1 million or more. Statistics gathered by the Security Assistance Monitor have documented that the State Department approved $662 million worth of firearms exports to 15 countries in 2017, including to places like Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, the Philippines, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey where there is a risk that these weapons will be used to abuse human rights, fall into the hands of criminal gangs, or fuel devastating conflicts like the Saudi/UAE-led intervention in Yemen. Absent notification, Congress and the public would have little ability to debate, much less block, any of these problematic exports.


The administration rule has tried to obscure the true danger of its approach by suggesting that the bulk of the guns that are being removed from State Department oversight and licensing are commercially available. For many of the firearms being deregulated, this claim is dubious

More importantly, many of the guns involved are military-grade, including sniper rifles. Others, like the AR-15, have been used in tragic incidents of gun violence such as the Parkland, Florida school shootings. Finally, in some cases, as with sniper rifles, these weapons could end up being used against U.S. troops involved in overseas operations. The Violence Policy Center has compiled a lengthy list of military firearms and other especially dangerous weapons that would be subjected to far looser restrictions under the proposed administration plan. 

The firearms slated for deregulation are the primary tools in many of the world’s most deadly conflicts, and have rightly been described as “slow motion weapons of mass destruction.” They should be subjected to more rigorous scrutiny, not less.

In addition, the proposed rule would make it easier for private military contractors like the firm formerly known as Blackwater to train foreign security forces without a license, even for destinations like Libya and China that raise significant security concerns. 

In another particularly unwise change, many companies that engage in firearms manufacturing would no longer have to register with the State Department, which will make it much harder to track their activities and prevent illegal sales or exports to security forces or non-state groups that will use the weapons they make to do grievous harm to civilians.

This relaxation of the monitoring of manufacturing activities will apparently extend to open source 3-D printing, meaning that anyone could post non-proprietary instructions for to use this process to produce untraceable hand guns and semi-automatic firearms without have to register with State or seek an export license from Commerce.

This will be an invitation to arms proliferation on a scale not yet seen. Congress should address the 3-D printing issue alongside efforts to block the Trump administration’s proposed changes in firearms export regulations.  

The proposal would also lift the obligation of U.S. arms exporting firms to report political contributions to foreign officials and fees paid to marketing agents in potential recipient countries. This would seriously hinder U.S. law enforcement agencies’ ability to root out corruption and illegal transfers, which have long plagued the global trade in small arms and light weapons.

Last but certainly not least, taking dangerous firearms off of the U.S. Munitions List, as the new proposal would do, would mean that they are no longer described as “defense articles.” As a result, they would likely fall outside the jurisdiction of a web of carefully constructed laws that impose specific human rights criteria on the export of such weapons.

The concerns outlined here underscore the risks inherent in the Trump administration’s firearms deregulation scheme. The bottom line is that implementing these rules as written would lead to additional unnecessary deaths, bolster repressive regimes, and make it easier for terrorists and criminal gangs to inflict violence on innocent individuals. For all of these reasons, the new rule should be rejected.

At a minimum, Congress should move to restore the most important elements of the current regulatory scheme, including notification of major firearms exports and limits on the deregulation of military-grade firearms and guns most likely to be used in mass killings.

William D. Hartung is the director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.

Tags Eliot Engel Firearms James McGovern Jamie Raskin Mike Pompeo Sander Levin weapons Wilbur Ross William D. Hartung

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