The Trump administration appears to be moving ahead with a controversial rule change that would transfer export controls on many types of small arms and parts from the State Department to the Commerce Department.
A Reuters report earlier this month reported that the change could be implemented by the end of the year.
Lawmakers and experts are concerned that the change could increase the risk that these small arms could fall into the hands of criminals or non-state actors around the world.
“Some of our most urgent challenges – forced migration and the crisis on our southern border –is due in part because of the violence originating from the Northern Triangle (in Central America) countries, “ Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in response to the news that the Trump administration had moved closer to enacting the rule change.
“[Under the proposed rule change] gangs, drug cartels and others will have easier access to guns, including pistols, sniper rifles, and semi-automatic assault rifles.”
In 2018, roughly 44 percent of guns confiscated after their use in crimes in El Salvador and submitted for tracing to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives were manufactured in the U.S.
In Mexico, 50 percent were manufactured in the U.S.
After suspected cartel members in northern Mexico brutally murdered nine Mormon women and children who had dual U.S.-Mexican citizenship last month, it was reported that 200 Remington shell casings were found at the crime scene.
The rule change would apply to certain non-automatic and semi-automatic firearms, ammunition, parts and components. These include sniper rifles, civilian AK and AR-type semi-automatic assault rifles, grenades, and even flamethrowers with a range of up to 20 meters.
The Obama administration in 2010 initially shifted export controls of certain “dual-use,” “less sensitive military” items on the United States Munitions List (USML) to the Commerce Control List (CCL), according to a March Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.
Items on the USML are regulated by the State Department’s Directorate of Defense Trade Controls (DDTC), under the International Traffic in Arms Regulations.
The GAO report states the rules are an attempt to “modernize the U.S. export control system,” and limit items under State control to those that provide the U.S. with “a critical military or intelligence advantage or are inherently for military use.”
Measure Stalled After Sandy Hook
In the wake of the Sandy Hook shooting, the effort was stalled, and the Obama administration did not transfer items from Categories I, II, and III of the USML, which include the firearms and parts mentioned above.
“The Trump administration decided to push this move forward in spite of potential risk to U.S. interests and civilian life abroad,” Rachel Stohl, Managing Director at the Stimson Center, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on international peace and security issues, told The Crime Report.
The Trump administration’s plan to implement the changes met immediate resistance from Democrats like Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Norma Torres, who represents California’s 35th District.
Weakening a Deterrent
“Does Dick’s Sporting Goods sell flame throwers?”
That question was posed during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in March by U.S. Representative Ted Lieu (D-CA), to Johanna Reeves, executive director of the Firearms & Ammunitions Import/Export Roundtable (F.A.I.R).
Lieu was contesting the claim that many of the firearms that are set to transfer are already commercially available in the U.S.
Jeff Abramson, a non-resident senior fellow at the Arms Control Association, has been at the forefront of combating the proposed rule change. Abramson told The Crime Report that even if most of the firearms set to transfer are widely available in the U.S., that doesn’t mean they should be made easier to export to other countries.
Abramson said the notion that these firearms don’t qualify as having an “inherently military use” is a false distinction.
“A number of these semi-automatic weapons can be converted into fully automatic weapons, and a lot of military weapons are used in semi-automatic modes,” Abramson told TCR.
Abramson also maintains that according to ICE officials and others, overall the State Department captures more information during the export licensing process, which adds a deterrent value as well as assisting in prosecutions.
One of the main concerns expressed by the opposition is that the change would remove a statutory requirement for congressional review of commercial arms sales over $1 million.
Profits Over Human Rights
The move by the Trump administration is reflective of its broader policy of supporting sales on behalf of U.S. arms manufacturers.
While there seems to be a strong chance the change will be implemented, Stohl pointed out that enough pressure from the public and Congress could possibly force the Trump administration to rescind the order.
Stohl also commented that this is the result of a nearly decade-long effort by the U.S. firearms industry and organizations like the NRA and the F.A.I.R. Trade Group.
“The U.S. sells more arms than any other country in the world, so we have a pretty rigorous system for arms transfers,” said Stohl.
“But it’s been systematically marginalized through decreasing regulations (in order) to increase sales.”
Moreover, the State Department’s export licensing process by the DDTC has not been airtight by any means, especially in light of a 28 percent staff reduction as of July, 2018.
The Trump administration has shown recent signs of attempting to address other concerns, such as regulating the export of designs for 3D-printed guns. The Commerce Department originally said that it would not require an export license for something publicly available on the internet.
What these regulations will be remains to be seen.
An emailed statement from a State Department spokesperson indicated the department was finalizing a process to share their watch lists with the Department of Commerce, which was the main recommendation of the GAO’s report.
While these changes are noteworthy, they’re unlikely to assuage the full concerns voiced by experts and lawmakers.
Agreeing with Stohl’s sentiment about public awareness, Abramson said, “I’ve been waiting for this for nine years, there’s been hints of it for a long time. It would be a real tragedy if this went quietly forward.”
Dane Stallone is a contributing writer for The Crime Report. He welcomes comments from readers.