The Trump administration has implemented new export rules for American small arms, ammunition, and gun parts — a major victory for the American gun industry, which has lobbied for the change for more than a decade.
The new rules, which went into effect on March 9, shift oversight of small arms exports from the State Department to the Commerce Department. The arrangement dramatically reduces restrictions on who can sell weapons internationally and guts oversight of where guns end up. It also eliminates a requirement to notify Congress of gun deals totaling more than $1 million.
These changes were first considered by the Obama administration in 2010, as a way to streamline the export process, but after the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre, the proposal lost steam. Secretary of State John Kerry officially shelved it in 2016.
In February of last year, the Trump administration revived the proposal, despite objections from Senate Democrats. “This is a tremendous achievement for the firearms and ammunition industry,” said the industry’s chief trade group, the National Shooting Sports Foundation, in a January press release. “This initiative will enable U.S. manufacturers to create more good-paying jobs in America while also helping to strengthen our national security.”
But critics say the industry benefits aren’t worth the potential costs. “On paper, there were quite a number of requirements” to step through under the old arrangement, said Rachael Hanna, a student at Harvard Law School who, along with fellow law student Eric Halliday, co-authored a thorough assessment of the rule change for Lawfare, a national security blog. “Take back any of these controls and I think that really opens the situation up for a lot more abuse.”
Under the old rules, any American company wishing to export firearms needed first to register with the State Department, which meant disclosing foreign business ownerships and past indictments. Once registered, exporters had to apply for a license for each sale. The department screened license applications against internal watch lists to prevent arms deals with dangerous or unethical trade partners. Finally, the State Department performed end-user checks — essentially, surprise verifications to confirm that sold weapons wound up where intended.
The new rules scrap registration and dramatically dial back the government’s end-use monitoring efforts. They also include no requirement that the State Department share its watchlists with the Commerce Department.
Hanna and Halliday stressed that these changes loosen a regulatory apparatus that was inadequate to begin with. Nearly 95 percent of approved applications examined during a 2019 audit by the State Department’s inspector general lacked some required information.
Still, because the old rules required the State Department to notify Congress of larger deals, legislators were able to provide a final fail-safe. In their assessment, Hanna and Halliday point to two episodes in the past five years in which Congress successfully prevented arms sales that may have resulted in human rights violations. “Now, if Congress wants to exert any informal oversight, it has the burden of determining if there is a problematic sale,” Hanna said.
This could make it more likely that American-made guns end up in the wrong hands. The United States is already a primary source for illegal guns throughout Latin America and the Middle East, producing in some cases as much as 70 percent of all illegal guns seized by authorities in places like Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador. The widespread availability of small arms is a “key enabler” of international conflicts, according to the United Nations.
For now, only one category of small arms exports will remain under the purview of the State Department: blueprints for 3D-printed guns. A federal judge on March 6 exempted such files from the rule change, citing national security risks and ongoing federal litigation.