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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. JohnsonBottom line Schumer waiting for recommendation on Supreme Court expansion Democrats seek Barrett's recusal from case tied to conservative backers 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 McClintockLawmakers tout bipartisan support for resolution criticizing Iran's government House Republicans ask Pelosi to reschedule Biden's address to Congress GOP lawmakers ask Mayorkas for documents on warnings from DHS to Biden on immigration 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 BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack 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 TrumpKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote READ: Liz Cheney's speech on the House floor Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' 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.