The Trump administration took a major formal step Monday toward officially shifting authority from the State Department to the Commerce Department over the approval of U.S. small arms exports, including semiautomatic rifles and weapons ranging in size up to .50 caliber.
In a closed-door briefing for lawmakers, State and Commerce officials outlined specifics of the shift long sought by small arms manufacturers as a way to cut red tape and boost exports — but decried by pro-regulation Democrats who warn the policy change could dissolve barriers designed to keep U.S.-made firearms from criminals and terrorists overseas.
While Congress could still block the initiative — Monday’s briefing on Capitol Hill sets in motion a public comment period that lasts for 45 days — administration officials are touting the policy as breakthrough for U.S. manufacturing and stress that key restrictions on exports to unsavory international buyers will remain in place.
What will change once the Commerce Department fully takes over as the point agency for licensing on small arms exports is that the “regulatory burden on the U.S. commercial firearms and ammunition industry” will be “significantly reduce[d],” says Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Tina Kaidanow.
The shift will “promote American exports,” Ms. Kaidanow told The Washington Times, asserting that officials are also “prioritizing national security controls and continuing our ability to restrict exports where human rights, illicit trafficking, and related issues may be of concern.”
Currently, small arms export licensing is lumped under they same approval process as that for such major military weapons as advanced missile systems and tanks. Under the new policy, Commerce will be put in charge of overseeing exports of handguns, sporting rifles and such semiautomatic rifles as AR-15s, separating those personal protection and hunting firearms from the military-grade weaponry, which will still be governed by the State.
“One of the guideposts we used in writing the proposed policy change was to look at what’s commercially available in sporting goods stores in the United States — products where the majority of the end users are not military,” a senior Commerce Department official told The Times.
A senior State Department official explained that “firearms that put out one bullet per pull of the trigger are going to Commerce, while the more than one bullet per pull will stay with State on the U.S. Munitions List (USML) that controls the sale of American military equipment to foreign buyers.”
The biggest firearms whose export will now be run out of Commerce are .50 caliber rifles. What will stay at State go are certain types of ammunition, specifically magazines that carry more than 50 rounds, any belt-fed bullets, tracers and “developmental” ammunition proprietary to major defense companies.
There will also be major license exceptions put in place for under Commerce, including exceptions for companies with contracts to manufacture and maintain small arms for certain foreign police departments or for NATO and other close allies.
The policy shift will also do away with certain registration fees. Under the current system, any individual or company that manufactures a firearm or small arm component — whether or not they export it — is required to register with the State Department and pay an annual fee that starts at $2,250 per year.
The fee, which small arm manufacturing advocates say is prohibitive to individual gunsmiths and to U.S.-based companies that manufacture parts for bigger firms focused on exporting, will no longer exist under the Commerce-run approval system.
“Basically, the way the old system is set up right now, we’re treating a guy in his garage who assists a foreign client in the design of a basic firearm as if he’s a major defense contractor,” said one of the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity with The Times. “We’re treating him the same as we’re treating Boeing right now and its not rational.”
Critics say that’s a talking point traceable back to the gun lobby. But firearms industry advocates say the new policy is something that’s been in the making for years because of a grassroots outcry from small arm manufactures who employ some 190,000 people across all 50 States.
Started with Obama
The policy shift began under President Obama, whose senior aides reportedly agreed that State shouldn’t be so deeply involved in controlling exports of products already sold with limited regulation in U.S. stores.
Mr. Obama was seen to be on the cusp of pushing through the shift to Commerce in 2012, but stalled amid outcry over small arms proliferation following the mass shooting that left 20 children dead that year at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Now that the shift is finally happening, advocates say it could grow revenues for the firearms industry by some $340 million a year and boost export sales by up to 20 percent.
“It’s a major improvement and something we’ve been chasing for a long time,” said Larry Keane of the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the nation’s leading firearms industry trade association.
“It’s a chance to compete in the global market on a more level playing field,” Mr. Keane told The Times. “American companies lose business opportunities because of the current license export control regime without any benefit to national security.”
Concerns over national security
The issue of national security has hung in the backdrop as support for the policy shift gained steam.
A GOP-led effort last year saw dozens of House members pen a letter to the Trump administration calling on the White House to get on with the shift to help a U.S. businesses “access new markets, create new jobs and hire hard-working Americans.”
Five Democrats joined a similar letter sent last May to the State Department by 29 senators. Among the Democrats who signed were Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia.
But a separate letter penned by Democrats Ben Cardin of Maryland, Dianne Feinstein of California and Patrick Leahy of Vermont argued a shift to Commerce will result “in less rigorous oversight” of gun exports and “be directly contrary to congressional intent of the 2002 Arms Export Control Act.”
The Senators specifically argued that approval for the export of .50 caliber rifles and semi-automatic firearms should remain under the State Department’s domain on grounds an expanding number of them on the global market may increase the risk of their falling into the wrong hands internationally.
The Arms Control Association (ACA), an advocacy group accused by some conservatives of pushing leftist gun-control agendas, has argued that Commerce control over such exports would be “less restrictive” in a way could “enable illegal procurement and diversion of reclassified weapons.”
The ACA argues on its website that loosened export approval requirements, coupled with “confusion over regulations, may also make it harder to identify and prosecute arms smugglers and illegal exporters.” The association maintains that the State Department, not Commerce, has “the proper mandate to take into account the impact of firearms transfers on terrorist activity, human rights norms and other considerations beyond commercial interests.”
Cardin vows to fight it
Mr. Cardin took the argument further Monday, telling The Times he’s spent years advising “both the Obama and Trump administrations against this type of transfer.”
“Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security,” the Maryland Democrat said. “Small arms and light weapons are among the most lethal weapons that we and other countries export…[and] are most likely to be used to commit atrocities and suppress human rights, either by individuals, non-state groups, or governmental security and para-military forces.”
“This decision is also politically tone-deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic,” Mr. Cardin asserted. “As the public comment period begins today, I encourage the American people and relevant stakeholders to weigh in with the administration and speak out against the forces really driving this policy change – the gun lobby.”
Advocates of the policy change, as well as Commerce and State Department officials downplayed Mr. Cardin’s concerns. One senior Commerce official stressed in an interview with The Times that the State Department will remain involved in an inter-agency review process for any export applications pertaining to buyers in foreign countries deemed sensitive.
“There’s very little that we would approve under Commerce that we would not approve today under the current State Department run system,” the official said. “What we’re trying to do is reduce the burden it takes to get that license. But we’re still going to do that same national security, foreign policy, human rights review. Something that we would deny today should continue to be denied tomorrow.”
Sen. Steve Daines, a Montana Republican who pushed for the shift to Commerce, told The Times his state’s “world-class firearm and ammunition manufacturers should not be burdened by unnecessary regulations and costs.”
Trump administration officials say they hope the shift can be finalized quickly following a 45-day comment period that officially begins Wednesday. Once it has passed, Congress could try to overturn the policy, but would have to pass legislation to do so — something officials say is unlikely given the near unanimous support the shift among Republicans.
Mr. Daines, meanwhile, said he wishes even more red tape were being cut. “While this is a step in the right direction,” he said, “more work remains to be done and I will continue pushing.”
Trump administration officials are eager to take credit, asserting the new policy amounts to “common-sense reforms” that fit with the president’s view that “economic security is national security.”
“President Trump is following through on his commitment to reduce the regulatory burden on American employers, which will result in more jobs and a stronger economy,” a senior White House official told The Times.