Trump Administration Seeks New Rules Which Could Ease Controls on Firearms Exports

The Trump administration is set to propose new rules which could ease oversight of firearms exports on domestic manufacturers.

The administration recently finished an interagency review of new regulations which, if enacted, would transfer responsibility for firearms export licensing from the State Department to the Department of Commerce, according to a State Department official.

Firearms manufactured domestically and sold abroad which don't serve an "inherently military" function may soon fall under the purview of the Commerce Department.

The review of the forthcoming export regulations took place over several years and involved both the Departments of State and Commerce, as well as the Departments of Homeland Security, Defense and Justice.

The 1976 Arms Export Control Act gives the president the authority to control the flow of weapons out of U.S. borders. The following year, two days before President Jimmy Carter would be sworn in, President Gerald Ford issued an executive order delegating authority to regulate firearms exports to the State Department.

The State Department is responsible for developing the United States Munitions List, designating which weapons are considered "defense articles" under the 1976 law. Such articles need to be approved by the department before they can be exported.

Moving the responsibility for licensing exports of semi-automatic rifles, pistols, silencers and other weapons and accessories to the Commerce Department could subject export applications to different scrutiny.

News of the move was first reported by Reuters.

The public mission of the Directorate of Defense Trade Controls, the relevant division of the State Department, is to ensure "commercial exports of defense articles and defense services advance U.S. national security and foreign policy objectives."

On the other hand, the Commerce Department is primarily concerned with economic growth, and especially the competitiveness of domestic manufacturers. According to Reuters, the National Shooting Sports Foundation estimated that relaxing export rules could boost foreign sales of firearms by 20 percent.

According to an interim report prepared by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, over 540,000 firearms were exported from the United States in 2018.

Already, the firearms industry is attempting to leverage its influence within the State Department to promote more lenient trade policies akin to those of the Commerce Department. A working group which advises the State Department on firearms regulations—composed of representatives from companies which include weapons manufacturers such as Lockheed Martin—recently recommended adopting a licensing regime similar to one in place at the Commerce Department.

Semi-Automatic Rifles
According to an interim report prepared by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, over 540,000 firearms were exported from the United States in 2018. George Frey/Getty

If the State Department were to follow the Commerce Department's model, U.S. weapons manufacturers would have a much easier time selling firearms to strategic allies of the United States. In many of these cases, an export license would not even be required, the working group considered.

And yet the state department working group described this proposal as being "in the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States" because it would help facilitate "license-free trade" with allied partners.

When publishing the rules the working group now wants to emulate, the Commerce Department, then under President Barack Obama, cited, in part, the administration's desire to strengthen "the competitiveness of key U.S. manufacturing and technology sectors."

If authorship power of firearms export regulations were transferred to the Commerce Department, such business-related reasoning might be more welcome in new regulatory proposals. The national security and foreign policy pretexts currently invoked would likely not carry the same weight as they do now.

Reforming the United States Munitions List is a project that began under the Obama administration, with the goal of removing non-military-style weapons from the State Department's control. However, these reforms were never fully realized under Obama, and the Trump administration is apparently seeking to capitalize on those forgone efforts.

In response to concern about similar rules proposed in May 2018, the State Department issued a press release seeking to downplay the potential consequences of such a move.

"The transfer of certain firearms to the control of the Department of Commerce does not deregulate the export of firearms," the department said at the time. "All firearms moved from the jurisdiction of the Department of State to the jurisdiction of the Department of Commerce will continue to require U.S. Government authorization."

This article has been updated to include input from a State Department official.