Congress should block rule changes for firearm exports

As the nation is reminded of the tragic consequences of gun violence with the one-year anniversary of the Parkland school shooting, the Trump administration is pushing forward with plans to expedite the export abroad of the same kind of military-style weapons used in many of the mass shootings that have taken place in recent years.

These are not the commodities that the United States should make easier to export.


Congress can and should stop the changes, which would put the Department of Commerce in charge of regulating these exports, removing them from the State Department-led U.S. Munitions List (USML).

At the core of these proposed changes is the mistaken belief that firearms do not merit tighter scrutiny under the State Department-led munitions control list because they are neither high-tech nor do they provide unique military advantages.

Of course, the changes would also make it easier for gun manufacturers to sell and profit from these weapons transfers.

In reality, these are some of the weapons that fuel criminal violence, civil conflict and facilitate human right abuses by authoritarian governments around the world.

In response, Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezJuan Williams: A breakthrough on immigration? Biden rebuffs Democrats, keeps refugee admissions at 15,000 Bottom line MORE (D-N.J.), ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, introduced the "Stopping the Traffic in Overseas Proliferation of Ghost Guns Act" that would prohibit the removal of firearms from the State Department-led list.

Menendez argues: "Every terrorist and criminal that wants to hijack an airplane with Americans on board will more easily be able to smuggle 3D-printed, virtually undetectable guns aboard. Every school, every government facility, every hospital, here and abroad, will become even more vulnerable to gun violence through this change. This is madness.”

Over in the House, Rep. Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Norma TorresNorma Judith TorresHouse Democrats call for paid legal representation in immigration court Immigration and border initiatives test political alliances The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - All US adults now eligible for COVID vaccines MORE (D-Calif.) have introduced a similar measure, the "Prevent Crime and Terrorism Act."

They say: “We need proper congressional oversight, so we can step in and make sure these weapons aren’t sent to bad actors, including terrorists, drug cartels, human rights abusers or violent criminals." They are right.

Under current State Department implementation, online plans for 3-D printed guns are traditionally deemed an export and therefore regulated. The administration's attempt last year to allow Defense Distributed to post 3-D printing plans led to public outrage and lawsuits that have thus far blocked this from changing.

Putting the Commerce Department in charge would be an end-around approach that effectively leads to deregulation, in part because Commerce would not have incentive to protect copyrights when 3-D print advocates are instead pushing to make their weapons designs freely available.

Transfer of export control to Commerce would also remove Congress from their current oversight role. Today, Congress is notified of potential commercial sales of firearms under USML category I when they were valued at just $1 million, but no such notifications exist for items on the Commerce Control List.

A 30-day review period has started on the rules, started when the administration sent them to Congress on Feb. 4. Senator Menendez is expected to put a "hold" on the rule changes, but more permanent legislation, such as those acts now introduced in both chambers, is a better long-term approach.

If not halted or significantly changed, the new rules would risk the safety of people both at home and abroad and continue the cynical approach of the Trump administration to treat weapons as any other trade commodity, upsetting decades of more-responsible U.S. arms transfer policy.

Jeff Abramson is nonresident senior fellow for arms control and conventional arms transfers at the Arms Control Association.