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House Democrats introducing bill to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police

House Democrats introducing bill to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police
© Greg Nash

Dozens of House lawmakers are reintroducing a bill Tuesday to limit the Pentagon program that sends military-grade equipment to local police departments.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Hank JohnsonHenry (Hank) C. JohnsonDemocrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Congressional Black Caucus members post selfie celebrating first WH visit in four years Overnight Defense: Navy medic killed after wounding 2 sailors in Maryland shooting | Dems push Biden for limits on military gear transferred to police | First day of talks on Iran deal 'constructive' MORE (D-Ga.), “goes after the items that destroy trust and endanger communities while allowing support equipment transfers to continue,” a summary shared with The Hill said.

“Our neighborhoods need to be protected, but Americans and our founding fathers opposed blurring the line between police and the military,” Johnson said in a statement Tuesday. “Before another town is transformed into a warzone with gifts of grenade launchers and high-caliber rifles, we must rein in this program and revisit our view of the safety of American cities and towns.”

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The bill is co-sponsored by co-sponsored by 73 other House Democrats and one Republican, Rep. Tom McClintockThomas (Tom) Milller McClintockGOP lawmakers ask Mayorkas for documents on warnings from DHS to Biden on immigration House passes bills providing citizenship path for Dreamers, farmworkers Overnight Defense: Pentagon chief to press for Manchin's support on Colin Kahl | House Dems seek to limit transfer of military-grade gear to police MORE (Calif.).

The bill mirrors language that was included in a sweeping police reform bill the House passed last week. But that legislation, dubbed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, faces an uphill battle in getting the 60 votes needed to pass a Senate with a 50-50 party divide.

Lawmakers are reintroducing the standalone bill to tackle the Pentagon program in hopes of building momentum to include it in the annual defense policy bill, said Yasmine Taeb, a human rights lawyer and activist supporting the bill. The National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is one of the few bills that reliably becomes law each year, so is often a lightning rod for hot-button issues.

At issue is what’s known as the 1033 program, which allows the Pentagon to transfer excess military equipment to U.S. police departments.

Attention on the program was renewed last year amid the nationwide protests over police violence and racial injustice sparked by George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis police custody.

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Former President Obama curtailed the 1033 program in 2015 after local police suppressed protests in Ferguson, Mo., using military-grade equipment. But the Trump administration rescinded the restrictions in 2017.

President BidenJoe BidenHouse panel approves bill to set up commission on reparations Democrats to offer bill to expand Supreme Court Former Israeli prime minister advises Iran to 'cool down' amid nuclear threats MORE has been expected to issue an executive order reimposing limits on the program.

Johnson’s bill could put pressure on Biden for what to include in an executive order. In addition, House members are expected to send Biden a letter later this week calling on him to issue an executive order to “end the transfer of military-grade weaponry through the Pentagon’s 1033 program onto the streets of our communities,” Taeb said.

Last year’s NDAA included language aimed at limiting the program by blocking the transfer of bayonets, grenades, weaponized tracked combat vehicles and weaponized drones, as well as requiring law enforcement getting equipment to be trained in de-escalation and citizens' constitutional rights.

But the language that made it into the NDAA, which became law over former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump mocks Murkowski, Cheney election chances Race debate grips Congress US reentry to Paris agreement adds momentum to cities' sustainability efforts MORE’s veto, did not go as far as Democrats and advocates wanted.

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Johnson’s bill would place much broader restrictions on the program. Specifically, the bill would prohibit the Pentagon from sending police departments controlled firearms, ammunition, bayonets, grenade launchers, grenades, including stun and flash-bang grenades, explosives, certain controlled vehicles including mine-resistant vehicles, armored or weaponized drones, combat-configured or combat-coded aircraft, silencers and long-range acoustic devices, according to the bill text.

It would also limit the reason the Pentagon can approve a transfer to counterterrorism. Right now, equipment can also be transferred for counter-drug, disaster-related emergency preparedness and border security activities.

And it would require new certifications to Congress from the Pentagon accounting for equipment that has been transferred, as well as place new requirements on local police departments to notify the public it is seeking the equipment and get local government approval.

Updated at 10:49 a.m.