The Trump administration on Monday advanced a long-sought-after plan to relax export rules for American small arms, including semiautomatic rifles, handguns, and sniper rifles.
In a private briefing with members of Congress, State Department officials outlined a proposed rule change that would transfer oversight of gun exports to the Department of Commerce. The proposed rule will be published in the Federal Register later this week, where it will be subject to public comment for 45 days. While it is unlikely, Congress could block the change using powers under the Congressional Review Act.
The shift, which was first proposed by the Obama administration in 2012, is championed by gunmakers who say it will make them more competitive in the international market. Critics argue an export policy that favors commercial interests could put the national security of the United States at risk or harm diplomatic efforts.
“Weakened Congressional oversight of international small arms and munitions sales is extremely hazardous to global security,” said Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a Democrat who serves on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, in an emailed statement. “This decision is also politically tone-deaf as our nation reckons with a gun violence epidemic.”
A State Department spokesman said that the change would ease the regulatory burden on American gun makers and allow them to compete better globally.
Currently, the Department of State monitors exports of nearly all weapons through the U.S. Munitions List. Since 2002, the department has been required to notify Congress of overseas sales of firearms worth more than $1 million.
In 2016, the State Department alerted the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to a proposed sale of more than 26,000 rifles to the Philippines. Cardin at the time objected to arming the regime of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who had inaugurated a wave of thousands of extrajudicial killings as part of a crackdown on drugs. The weapons deal was canceled as a result.
The proposed rule change would transfer control over the sale of small arms to the Commerce Control List, and Congress would no longer be notified of large purchases.
Some arms control experts say reduced oversight could provide criminals, terrorists, or hostile states an opportunity to purchase American weapons.
Under Department of Commerce weapon-export rules, “companies aren’t required to provide as much information about brokers or shipping” as they must under State Department supervision, said Colby Goodman, who examines American weapons exports as director of the Security Assistance Monitor program at the Center for International Policy in Washington. “The world of firearms exports is full of questionable, dubious characters.”
The rule change has been long in the making. It was first proposed in 2012 by the Obama administration, but abandoned shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. At the time, the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security criticized the change because it could make it easier for transnational criminal organizations or terrorists to get American-made guns.
In September, Reuters reported that the Trump administration was interested in reviving the rule change to encourage more international arms sales. With the formal commencement of the public comment period, the preparation has become a policy reality.
In April, the Trump administration said it would now consider economic factors in addition to security when it comes to selling American weapons overseas.
The Trump administration has argued that the change would aid the domestic gun industry by cutting down on export regulation. American consumer sales of firearms have suffered since the 2016 election. After years of elevated sales in anticipation of possible new gun-control measures imposed by Democratic lawmakers, domestic demand subsided as Republicans took full control of the federal government.