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Deregulating firearms exports risks putting guns in the wrong hands

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The Trump administration just released a new rule that will make it easier for terrorists, tyrants, and criminal gangs to receive U.S.-supplied guns and ammunition. This is great news for the NRA and the gun industry, which has supported these changes. But it’s bad news for everyone else.

If implemented, the new rule will move regulation of sales of semi-automatic weapons, pistols, and sniper rifles from the State Department to the Commerce Department, according to an analysis of the regulations done by Kristen Rand of the Violence Policy Center.

{mosads}That will mean less scrutiny and less careful tracking of these sales, which will increase the probability of U.S. guns falling into the wrong hands. The State Department is set up to vet potential firearms sales on human rights and security grounds, while the Commerce Department’s ethos, as one might expect, is to push exports.


While other agencies will still be able to weigh in, making Commerce the lead agency will no doubt lead to greater sales and less scrutiny. That’s what the gun makers are counting on. In fact, the National Shooting Sports Federation(NSSF) — the trade association for the firearms industry — estimates that U.S. firearms exports could increase by up to 20 percent under the new rules.

This is not merely an administrative shift. The guns that will be moved to Commerce’s jurisdiction include AR-15 rifles of the sort used in the Parkland, Florida school shooting; sniper rifles that could be used against U.S. troops; and AK-47-style semi-automatic weapons of the kind that are the weapon of choice in the world’s most vicious and violent civil wars. Proponents of curbing the global trade in small arms and light weapons have rightly dubbed the AK-47 and its various knock-offs as “slow motion weapons of mass destruction.” 

To add insult to injury, the new regulations would end the vital procedure of notifying Congress of firearms deals worth more than $1 million. These notifications have tipped off Congress to ill-advised offers like the proposed sale of rifles to the police in the Philippines, which have been implicated in assassinations of their own citizens. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) was able to stop that particular deal, but he has noted that the new rules may prevent him from stopping similar deals in the future, simply because Congress will not get an official heads up as to what kinds of exports are being proposed.

The United States is already a significant exporter of firearms and related equipment, with over $662 million in deals notified to Congress in 2017 alone, according to an analysis by the Security Assistance Monitor. Two of the top five recipients were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, leaders of a coalition that is engaged in a brutal war in Yemen that has killed thousands of civilians and pushed that nation to the brink of famine. 

The sales of M-4 and M-16 rifles and machine guns to the UAE are of particular concern, as the UAE is the main ground force involved in the invasion of Yemen, and has relationships with militias that have been linked to major human rights abuses, including torture

The Trump administration’s regulations have drawn sharp criticism from domestic organizations working to end gun violence, including the group founded by former Rep. Gabby Giffords (D-Ariz.), who has stated that the proposed changes “set a dangerous precedent that allows the administration to act on its own and in the process create further instability in places where people are already suffering.”

The proposed deregulation of global gun sales is not a done deal. There is a 45-day comment period during which concerned citizens and members of Congress can weigh in on what is right and what is wrong with the administration’s proposed approach. 

At the very minimum, the rule should be adjusted to restore the process of notifying Congress of major deals. Ideally, the relaxation on rules on exporting firearms should be blocked altogether, but that will be a tough fight given that the NRA, the gun industry, and the Trump administration are joined at the hip on this issue. That’s why it is imperative to speak out loudly and clearly against this dangerous and counterproductive initiative.

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

Tags Ben Cardin Firearms Guns William D. Hartung

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