Restore controls over dangerous gun exports

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One of the most ill-advised decisions made by the Trump administration is to transfer oversight of the export of firearms from the State Department to the Department of Commerce. The new policy will make it easier for terrorists, tyrants and criminal gangs to get access to U.S.-made semi-automatic pistols, assault-style firearms, sniper rifles and ammunition. To add insult to injury, it would also end the practice of notifying Congress of major firearms exports, thereby thwarting its ability to stop dangerous sales.

This reckless approach to firearms exports should not be allowed to stand. Congress has a chance to reverse the current policy and restore executive branch and congressional oversight through this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Incorporating House-approved language proposed by Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.) into the NDAA would block the Trump administration’s plan to transfer authority over foreign firearms transfers from the State Department to the Department of Commerce. The NDAA will be finalized within the next week or so, so time is of the essence.

The negative consequences of gutting firearms controls cannot be overstated. In the past, Congress has taken advantage of the notifications it receives on gun exports to block sales to the Philippine police, who have been implicated in the deaths of their own citizens, and to Turkey, whose security officials attacked peaceful demonstrators on U.S. soil. Much more needs to be done.  

Congress and the administration should redouble efforts to keep U.S.-origin weapons out of the hands of the corrupt and repressive Mexican police and security forces. And sales of hundreds of millions of dollars of firearms to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates should be terminated given the role of those two nations in killing thousands of civilians and provoking the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe in their war in Yemen.  

The ability of Congress or the administration to take action against the kinds of deals cited above will be much diminished if regulation of gun sales is taken away from the State Department, which has the legal tools and expertise to do the job, unlike the Department of Commerce, which is ill-equipped to do so.

The proposal will also increase the risk of exports to unauthorized end users in conflict zones as the Commerce Department, charged with promoting sales, will gather less information about those engaged in the arms trade and neglect pre-license checks.  

Overall, Congress already has a robust framework for arms transfers, embedding important human rights and other critical provisions in two central statutes: the Arms Export Control Act and the Foreign Assistance Act. The provisions of these laws generally apply to items on the State Department’s U.S. Munitions List. Removing firearms from this list and transferring them to Commerce jurisdiction will exempt them from these important legal restraints.

The administration’s rule changes would also transfer control of the technical information for potentially undetectable 3-D-printed guns from the State Department to Commerce, a move that could facilitate printing of 3-D guns worldwide. This would make these weapons readily available to terrorist groups and other criminal elements — and endanger American embassies, military bases and civilian aircraft at home and abroad.

Proponents of the administration’s proposed approach argue that small arms are “less dangerous” because many can be bought in U.S. retail outlets, but the truth is that armies are built from these firearms, and they are in essence weapons of mass destruction in places such as Myanmar, Mexico, Congo and Central America. 

There is broad public support for retaining State Department and congressional oversight of firearms exports, as evidenced by a letter to Congress by a broad coalition over 100 peace, arms control and anti-gun violence groups in support of the Torres amendment. Just as Congress must take up the urgent issue of imposing strict background checks on individuals to prevent mass shootings and daily gun violence, it should preserve the ability to vet the security forces of nations that might use U.S.-supplied firearms to abuse human rights or undermine U.S. security.  

It is rare that Congress has the opportunity to take effective action that will both save lives and enhance U.S. security. Blocking the administration’s changes in U.S. firearms export policy is one such opportunity, and it should not be missed.

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

Tags arms deals Firearms International Norma Torres William D. Hartung

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